Microsoft builds the XCube!

Microsoft has chosen IBM’s Power PC processor to power its next generation of videogame consoles. Dave Wilson wonders if Microsoft is turning Japanese.

Let us not follow where the path may lead. <br>Let us go instead where there’s no path and leave a trail. <br> – Japanese Proverb. <br>

Being a bit of a Nintendo Gamecube afficianado, I was rather amused to read on Monday that Microsoft Corporation, developer of the X-box games console, is to use ‘semiconductor processor’ technology from IBM for use in future versions of its games hardware.

Although neither company came out and openly admitted it, what this means is that Microsoft’s ‘next-generation’ games platform will use some version of IBM’s Power PC microprocessor architecture in preference to the Intel Pentium that was used in the original design.

Funnily enough, that’s exactly the same Power PC architecture that Nintendo chose to power its very own Gamecube hardware too! Just lift the lid on your console and take a look if you don’t believe me.

As our more ‘chip-savvy’ readers will know, however, the central processing unit (CPU) in a games console is only one part of the hardware story. Equally as important is how the console handles graphics. For while it’s vitally important to have a zippy CPU to keep your AI engines thinking cunning thoughts as fast as they can, without a snappy graphics processor unit (GPU), your polygons just won’t fill fast enough.

For its original graphics engine, the Microsoft Xbox used a chip from Nvidia. But in August, after the two companies had had a bit of a tiff involving pricing, Microsoft decided to switch its GPU allegiances in the next generation design to ATI Technologies instead.

But wait a gosh darned minute here! Lift the lid on your Gamecube again! Good grief! The Nintendo Gamecube is also equipped with a graphics chip that sports the ATI Technologies logo.

If I were a hardware designer at Nintendo in Japan I’d be pretty flattered by Microsoft’s choice of hardware, wouldn’t you? Because it would appear that the Redmond-based software house is simply imitating the hardware inside the little Japanese Gamecube chip by chip!

But why on earth would Microsoft want to do that? Well, while gamers might argue ad infinitum about the relative pros and cons of each of the boxes, the results on screen are so similar no-one can actually tell the difference. But there is a difference, as anyone who has opened up both boxes can tell you. The X Box has much more hardware in it than the Gamecube. That means it costs more to make. And that means the profit margins aren’t as big as they could be. So taking a leaf out of the Nintendo ‘small-is-better-is-cheaper’ design notebook would seem to be quite a logical step.

But is that the only reason? Perhaps not. Savvy readers might recall Microsoft’s recent purchase of the emulator house Connectix. Developers of the well known ‘Virtual PC software’, these were also the chaps that developed ‘Virtual Game Station’ – a nifty little bit of software that allowed users to run Sony Playstation’ games on their PC. Until the product was purchased from the company by Sony and then quietly forgotten, that is.

Could the fellas at Microsoft be planning to use their Connectix emulation expertise just to allow the X Box 2 to run games developed for the X Box 1? Or are they also planning to use their new found emulation expertise to allow customers to access the entire Nintendo Gamecube software library too?