11 Jul 2012

Ouya: Yes or No?

If you’ve been tracking the tech news over the past 48 hours, you’ll have seen a new name crop up with increasing regularity: Ouya. Currently in a prototype, the design studio behind the project are raising funds via Kickstarter to bring the concept to living rooms worldwide. Gamers have been overwhelmingly positive in their response – with roughly $3.5 million already pledged in the first 48 hours alone, the console looks almost certain to become a reality.

So what exactly are people buying?

This is not a games console in the traditional sense. Ouya seeks to change the relationship between developer, platform owner and consumer. Instead of having expensive development kits and closely guarded marketplace access, the team behind Ouya are keen to make it as easy as possible for developers to get on to their platform, using pricing and payment models that are right for them. By building their own console, rather than relying on someone else’s platform, the team behind Ouya can control each point in the process.

The box itself is also intriguing, once it’s looked at indirectly. The hardware is based around the NVidia Tegra3 system-on-chip, something you’ll also see powering the Asus Nexus 7 tablet. It’ll also be running Android 4.0, meaning that the operating system will already be taken care of. While Ouya’s focus will be on the USB joypad, the ecosystem and the front-end, hackers will be eager to take this thing apart and start playing with it. In many respects it’s almost a premium-grade Raspberry Pi. And just like with mobile devices, there’s an opportunity to bring out a faster, more powerful and backwards compatible version each year.

But none of this is truly radical. Apple and Google have been doing similar things with their platforms for smartphones and tablets. Valve have been using Steam to do similar things for PC. Bringing that kind of engagement and pricing model to our big-screen TVs would certainly be a dramatic disruption to the status quo, but that’s all it would bring. We won’t be seeing next generation graphics on the Ouya, just images intended for a seven-inch screen blown up for our 42-inch plasmas.

It also finds itself in a precarious position. All it takes is for one of the existing walruses to roll over and change their stance, and Ouya’s unique proposition evaporates. It’s also possible that some enterprising coders transplant the Ouya wrapper onto other Tegra or Android based kit, eliminating the need to shell out on the hardware. Should that happen, it becomes a straight contest between Ouya, Google Play and Amazon’s app store.

For me, the intrigue of Ouya harks back to the days of Spectrums, Commodores, and Amigas, where your games machine was also your development box, where anyone could code as long as they had time and patience. But considering that anyone with a PC can start developing for Android, and anyone with a Mac can start coding for iPhone, the need for this little box of wonder seems moot.

Over 25 thousand of us have already put our cash down for the console, with many more likely to join them before the deadline expires next month. But even if the first production run nets Ouya an installed user base in the hundreds of thousands, I wonder if we’ll still be talking about the console next year. Whether it can create – then ride – the wave of change, or be wiped out in the wash, remains to be seen.

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