Each already has video chat services as well -- Sony through its free PlayStation Online service and Microsoft through its $60-a-year Xbox Live Gold online package -- but that's about where the comparison ends after Microsoft's buyout of Skype. Michael Pachter, video game industry expert and managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities, says the Skype partnership is a big improvement for Xbox Live that the Kinect can only enhance, giving Microsoft a nice advantage over Sony, but adds that online gaming probably wouldn't be the most effective use of the Xbox's newest feature
"Skype functionality will be pretty beneficial to the Xbox Live experience, and the technology will probably enhance in-game chat and video," Pachter says. "I'm not sure that most of us want to see our online opponent, who may be called Conan the Barbarian and in reality is an 11 year-old girl."
Just as the addition of ESPN content to Xbox Live Gold last year made Microsoft's offerings increasingly vital, Skype only broadens the Xbox's appeal as an entertainment hub. It recognizes that the modern living room increasingly involves multitasking on laptops, tablets and smartphones and that Apple's already addressing those multiscreen consumers by putting gaming, movie and other entertainment applications only a finger swipe away in the App Store.
"Whether it be gaming, movies, television, messaging or even face-to-face communication, Microsoft's goal is to ensure that their console is the primary outlet for these entertainment and communication vehicles," Divnich says. "The idea being that if consumers use their Xbox 360 for video communication, they are only one click away from ordering movies, music and video games."By running Skype's common thread through all of its devices, Microsoft not only provides the kind of cross-platform functionality Sony's wanted for its PlayStation, Bravia television and Vaio laptop, but gives Microsoft 170 million Skype users and more than 200 billion minutes of voice and video conversation that Sony and partners such as Google (GOOG) will likely have to build from scratch. "I think the more valuable part of the acquisition is the customer list, not the technology, as both Sony and Microsoft have videoconferencing and interactive chat functionality already," Pachter says. "However, by integrating Skype, Xbox owners can suddenly videoconference from their living room to any Skype user in the world, so it makes the Xbox 360 more of an open system than before." That "open" part is going to be yet another issue for Sony, whose PlayStation Network's been a bit too open of late. The company still hasn't restored PlayStation Network service after hackers infiltrated it in April and had access to the personal and financial information of 77 million network users. That's not counting the 24.6 million accounts compromised in a related hack of the company's Sony Online Entertainment division, which produces and hosts online games. About 2,500 of those users, who were sweepstakes participants, had their information posted on a website affiliated with Sony Electronics without Sony's knowledge, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal. With sales of its PlayStation Move motion controllers already lagging behind Microsoft's Kinect by roughly 2 million, Sony and the PlayStation were already playing from behind. While Sony teams up with Google on Android-based tablets and watches its video chat options for those products and its increasingly limited PlayStation dwindle to the less-popular Google Voice and untested Intel (INTC) and Facebook offerings -- as well as also-rans such as Fring or Qik -- Microsoft's game division scores huge points by adding Skype features that may affect game play, but whose primary purpose thinks far outside the Xbox. "I don't know how well Skype will be received by game developers and ultimately the gaming consumers," Divnich says. "I think there are some functions best left out for gaming purposes, face-to-face communication being one of them." -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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