What to Expect from Giants of Console Gaming in 2015

gamer logoI’ve just finished a feature on the console gaming market which was just about as far out of my comfort zone as you can get.

Still, it’s always good learning about new areas of technology, so here’s what I have surmised over the past few days:

  • Sony and Microsoft rule the roost. Nintendo will never gain parity as long as its selection of third party titles is so poor.
  • Sony’s PS4 won 2014, but Xbox One hit back in the last two months of the year thanks to discounted pricing
  • Both of the big boys have copied each other’s strategy at times; in engaging with the gamer geek and “bedroom coder” community and in trying to tie up exclusive third party title deals.
  • There’s pretty much nothing to separate the two hardware wise, which is why there’ll be some increasingly aggressive deal-making going on with third party developers in the coming years.
  • As IDC Retail Insights head of Europe, Spencer Izard, told me, there are only two things gamers really care about: “how many of your friends are using my console and am I getting the best content.”
  • The future will eventually shift towards online downloads, although not until there’s a critical mass of users. Only then will the console giants feel they can take retailers on and undercut them on price with downloads.
  • In developing regions this shift will take far longer, as broadband infrastructure simply isn’t up to the hefty downloads necessary.
  • However, last year actually saw “a significant increase” in spending on digital transactions for games, according to IHS head of games, Piers Harding-Rolls. “Part of this is to do with the early adopters who are currently very active digitally on the latest consoles, part of this is to do with the day and date release of new releases alongside boxed product in the retail channels and part of it is to do with the ability to use more efficient monetisation models in the digital space,” he told me. “In this context we have seen more open ended spending opportunities emerge on consoles during the last few years driving up monetisation.”
  • The rise of smartphone and tablet-based gaming represents a real challenge to the console players
  • In China, like Korea, Sony and Microsoft have just been too late to make a difference. The market is either swamped with pirated clones or dominated by PC gaming. Regulators will also be hard to please in terms of software content.

And there you have it. All you need to know about console-based gaming in a few media friendly sound bites.

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Forcing out rooms – Japan’s dirty secret

exitOver the weekend a New York Times story had some interesting insights into the continuing labour problems at Japan’s once proud electronics giants.

It alleged that workers who are unable to be sacked are often sent to oidashibeya or “forcing out rooms” where they are made to perform menial or repetitive tasks in a bid to make them resign out of shame and boredom.

It’s not particularly nice but it’s a situation that seems to have been forced upon multinationals such as Sony because of Japan’s relatively strict employment laws which make it hard to sack staff without good reason.

These firms simply can’t be as agile as their international rivals because they can’t downsize or strip out waste in specific areas. In the technology industry especially, skills can quickly become outdated.

As Gartner analyst Hiroyuki Shimizu told me, these laws should take the majority of the blame for the decline of Japan’s electronics industry on the global stage.

“In these 20 years, the goal for the company executives in almost all the Japanese electronics companies were to make much use of (or not to leave idle) their own excessive resources including workers and assets,” he said.

“In the global electronics market, companies focus on their differentiators. However, Japanese companies focused on the segments where they have plenty of human resources and large assets.”

This is a major failing of Japanese technology firms but not the only one.

Large scale job cuts are starting to appear, at firms including NEC, Sharp and Sony, although more are probably needed. However, this stripping out of dead wood needs to go hand in hand with enhancing traditional areas of technical weakness, said Shimizu.

It’s also true that there’s more to Japan’s well-charted decline on the technology front than just some stubborn employment laws.

“There are several reasons for each Japanese company for losing power such as commoditisation of electronics products, severe competition with Korean or Taiwanese companies or exchange rates,” he told me.

“But we consider that the deep-seated reason is the employment policy of Japanese companies.”


MediaTek and the battle of the budget quad cores

mediatek logoLast week Asian chip giant MediaTek launched its latest System on a Chip design, the 28nm quad core MT6589. Before you click on to something more interesting, here’s why it should make anyone with a mobile phone sit up and take notice.

First, MediaTek. It’s probably the most ubiquitous chip company you’ve never heard of. Asia’s biggest and the fourth largest fabless chip company by revenue globally, it lists LG, Huawei, Sony and others among its clients. Until now the firm has largely been focused on the 2G feature phone market, especially in China where demand was huge  until recently, but this announcement sees it really break out into the high end smartphone space.

The analysts I spoke to pretty unanimously agreed that MediaTek and arch rival Qualcomm between them are making a seriously disruptive play in the mobile space. Put simply, MediaTek is making quad core affordable by sticking CPU, GPU and wireless modem on the same SoC, which means the MT6589 will end up in plenty of cheap smartphones as well as some higher end ones.

The result? The big brands are going to have to differentiate on something other than quad core. In effect, as IDC analyst Teck-Zhung Wong told me, it’s going to kick off a whole new round of price competition, which is great for users and will spur the industry forward to keep on innovating, which is good for all stakeholders.

In the background there’s also the tussle between Qualcomm and MediaTek.

Qualcomm is doing amazing things this year and now sits third by revenue in IHS iSuppli’s new ranking of global chip companies. It has already produced a quad core aimed at the same market and has an advantage in its modem capabilities, which even MediaTek admitted to me. So it’s Taiwan versus the US in the battle of the budget quad cores. MediaTek historically has that huge customer base in China to tap and is likely to be faster to market but Qualcomm is catching up and apeing many of MediaTek’s technical advantages and customer relations strategies.

The jury’s out but it will be an interesting 12 months to see who the smartphone winners and losers will be.


VTech next in line for the Foxconn treatment

factoryJust finished a beast of a story detailing more depressing news from China of  human rights and labour violations in factories making tech kit for some of the West’s biggest brands.

Yup, it’s not Foxconn this time but Hong Kong-headquartered OEM VTech, which mainly seems to make cordless and fixed line telephones for the likes of Motorola, AT&T, Telstra, Sony and others.

The report into poor working conditions at its Guangdong factories list, if anything, worse abuses to those discovered at Foxconn. These include mandatory and excessive overtime; exposure to harmful chemicals; sub-standard living conditions; violence and bullying towards staff; and below subsistence wages.

It’s worth noting that VTech strenuously denies all the allegations.

I’m not disputing any of the findings of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, nor its deliberately confrontational tone and emotive, first-person testimonials from workers at the plant – after all it needs to shame the Western companies involved into taking action.

What is more interesting is what happens now that the genie is out of the bottle.

Motorola and Telstra reacted with shock, exclaiming that compliance with the law and their own codes of conduct are essential and that, if true, these abuses are unacceptable.

Fair play to Telstra for immediately suspending sales of any VTech products while it investigates, but it seems to me that large Western technology firms are more than happy to turn a blind eye to this kind of thing as long as the labour is cheap, the production costs are kept down and no-one is making a fuss.

Saying you mandate compliance with a code of conduct but never enforcing that compliance, for example, is less than useless. As is saying compliance with local laws is compulsory when you know that, as in China, local laws are not worth the paper they’re written on – they’re either not enforced or shot through with so many caveats that the employer can effectively do what they like.

There are those who say that improving conditions in these OEM factories will push up prices at the till.

Well, that is debatable given that the OEMs are making a healthy profit here and could probably stretch to curtains and mattresses in the dorms; better food in the canteens; and certainly stools for workers to sit on during their shifts, without pushing up the cost of production too much.

I think Foxconn was just the beginning. Any tech manufacturer that breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the buck stopped with Apple, better prepare themselves for a rather uncomfortable time going forward.

Bad publicity is the only thing that seems to spur these big name brands into action and as long as there is an appetite among the public to know what misery lies behind their latest shiny gadget then the stories will keep on coming.

Geoff Crothall, a spokesman for not-for-profit the China Labour Bulletin, told me that conditions like those highlighted in the report are endemic throughout factories in the Pearl River Delta.

The best that can come of the constant media scrutiny is that these brands and their OEMs are forced to institute regular inspections and improve living and working standards across the board, because the local government certainly isn’t going to.