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Phil Spencer signals Xbox One hardware upgrades

Xbox chief drops extraordinary hints about console's future 'innovation'

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During his Xbox Spring Showcase event keynote last week, Microsoft's head of Xbox Phil Spencer talked about future of "hardware innovation" for the console, similar to the ways PCs evolve.

In a speech to reporters, he said that the Xbox One could see a future in which it is upgraded, rather than replaced by new consoles. Spencer was talking about how Microsoft has sought to align its Windows 10 and Xbox One development activities under the internal "Universal Windows Platform" while offering backwards compatibility for many Xbox 360 games, now playable on Xbox One. He was addressing the concerns of some Xbox One owners that the exclusives destined for that console are appearing on PC, thus eroding the value of owning a console.

"You'll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation."

But he went much further than merely outlining internal strategies for cross-platform efficiency. He argued that consoles could and should be upgradeable, like PCs, and that the model of generation shifts may be coming to an end.

"We see on other platforms whether it be mobile or PC that you get a continuous innovation that you rarely see on console," he said. "Consoles lock the hardware and the software platforms together at the beginning of the generation. Then you ride the generation out for seven or so years, while other ecosystems are getting better, faster, stronger. And then you wait for the next big step function.

"When you look at the console space, I believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we've ever seen. You'll actually see us come out with new hardware capability during a generation allowing the same games to run backward and forward compatible because we have a Universal Windows Application running on top of the Universal Windows Platform that allows us to focus more and more on hardware innovation without invalidating the games that run on that platform."

Spencer said that Xbox One owners could be offered optional hardware upgrades in the future, that allows the console to keep up with emerging and competing technologies. Such a move would also suggest an end for new console launches.

"I believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we've ever seen."

"We can effectively feel a little bit more like we see on PC, where I can still go back and run my old Doom and Quake games that I used to play years ago but I can still see the best 4K games come out and my library is always with me. Hardware innovation continues while the software innovation is able to take advantage and I don't have to jump a generation and lose everything that I played on before."

It's an extraordinary suggestion. Unfortunately, he wasn't prepared to go into any more details. In an interview later in the day, Polygon asked him to be more specific about what exactly he had meant. Spencer replied that he did not want to "announce our road map for hardware," and would not give any details. But what he did say is definitely worth hearing. Here's the full transcript of his reply:

"We look at these other ecosystems out there like mobile, tablet and PC and we see that they have a very continuous evolution cycle in hardware, whereas between console generations most of the evolution is making it cheaper and potentially making it smaller.

Both are meaningful but don't make the games play any better. If you look at PC specifically and see the evolution that happens there, there's no reason why console can't ride that same curve.

I look at the ecosystem that a console sits in and I think that it should have the capability of more iteration on hardware capability. Sony is doing this with VR and adding VR capabilities mid-cycle to the PlayStation 4 and they are doing that by adding another box. I don't mean that as a negative. But it's not changing what the core console is about.

For consoles in general it's more important now than it's ever been, because you have so many of these other platforms that are around. It used to be that when you bought your console you were way ahead of the price performance curve by so much, relative to a PC. But now PCs are inexpensive and your phones are getting more and more capable.

I still think a console is the best price to performance deal that is out there but when you look at the evolution ... I'm not going to announce our road map for hardware ... but what I wanted to say on stage for people when they see this vision of ours and question our commitment to console I want to make sure that people see that what we are doing enables us to be more committed to what consoles are about than we've ever been and innovate more consistently than we ever have. That's the key for me."

You can listen to this story — and much more — in the episode of Polygon's daily news podcast, Minimap, below.

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