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A closer look at the Xbox One and remote play: Why is this feature missing?

Today, Microsoft takes the lid off the Xbox One, its next-generation console and multimedia platform. Unlike Sony, which has pushed a games-first strategy that de-emphasised virtually every other aspect of the console, Microsoft has gone wide. The Xbox One is explicitly designed for multitasking and media functions. Whether you value these capabilities or think they detract from the machine and drive up the price, there’s no arguing that Microsoft explicitly chose to tackle the living room with a comprehensive solution rather than a laser-focused gaming system.

Given this baseline, it’s genuinely puzzling that the Xbox One completely lacks any sort of game streaming capability. Nor has Microsoft ever discussed adding one. Unlike cloud offload, media partnerships, or alliances with streaming capabilities, the idea of leveraging its enormous PC ecosystem isn’t something Microsoft is willing to talk about.

An untapped market

Game streaming, even at the local level, is a major feature of multiple gaming systems. The Wii U was first on the scene, with a tablet controller that can run certain games locally, freeing up the TV for other uses. Nvidia’s Shield can stream games from a PC to the handheld. Sony’s PS4 can stream titles to the PS Vita. These latter services require you to buy additional hardware to use the capability – Shield won’t stream off a high-end AMD GPU, for example.

But Microsoft? Microsoft knows that statistically, some 90 per cent of modern PCs ship with a Windows operating system. Even now, with the PC market in overall decline, the number of people who have completely junked their systems is small. The overwhelming majority of buyers still own PCs, they’ve just put off replacing them as frequently in favour of iOS or Android products.

Microsoft knows that the majority of us own Windows PCs. It has its own series of tablets. Granted, the original Surface RT might not be powerful enough for playing streamed games (though it should be), but Surface Pro, Surface 2, and Surface Pro 2 definitely are. Microsoft even has a history of building controllers that are compatible with both the Xbox 360 and the PC.

In the past, the sheer number of OS-level differences might have made such a feature impractical, but that’s no longer the case. The Xbox One runs a version of Windows 8. Given how much trouble Microsoft went to unifying the Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 kernels, it’s highly unlikely that they split the kernel again for the Xbox One. Even more than the PS4, the Xbox One is a PC – it runs Windows, it uses a variant of DirectX 11, and it offers most of the same features you’d expect in a conventional desktop.

On a related issue, it’s also worth noting that the Xbox One’s integration has been delayed until 2014 – and unlike the PS4, which will get Gaikai game streaming in 2014, the Xbox One doesn’t have an equivalent feature on the horizon. It seems that game streaming on the Xbox One is a forgotten second-class citizen.

A potentially killer feature bogged down in implementation

One reason I’d love to see the Xbox One offer game streaming is that it could neatly address the biggest reason that I dislike most laptops for. Laptops that are decent for gaming are significantly heavier (and far more expensive) than svelte models like the MacBook Air. The difficulty of building a laptop capable of high-end games, without breaking the bank or your back/shoulder, isn’t likely to change much in the future, but an Xbox One that can stream games to a lightweight notebook? That solves the problem neatly.

Obviously there would still be some performance and wireless restrictions on the end/second screen devices, but an Xbox One that can stream games to a different PC would be extraordinary useful. It’s a feature Microsoft is uniquely positioned to deliver to the market.

Will they? I’ve no idea. The truth is that Microsoft’s Xbox-PC integration has come much more slowly than some expected. SmartGlass is a great additional capability, which we’ll have more coverage of later, but there’s no special gaming perks for buying into Surface, despite the fact that these devices are a core part of Microsoft’s ecosystem.

Xbox-PC integration and streaming could be a great way for Microsoft to unify the two experiences and bring diehard PC gamers like myself into the fold. Once again, it would seem that Microsoft has missed the boat on a new trend and feature.

For more on Microsoft's new console which launches this Friday, see our battle of the tech specs between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. You might also want to read our piece on how the PlayStation 4's second screen functionality could put it ahead of the Xbox One and SmartGlass.