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Backwards Compatibility

The release on Friday of the iPad 3 (or “the new” iPad, if Apple’s new aversion to numbering is to take hold) has once again taken our geek world by storm. Twitter feeds were chocked full of tech lovers gleefully telling the world about their shiny new toy, shops had epic queues forming outside of them from the wee small hours, and, cackling, Apple’s shareholders went swimming Scrooge McDuck-style in the takings.

I’m yet to jump on the iPad bandwagon, mainly as I’m quite happy with what limited extras my smart phone offers me, namely Internet and Twitter. At times though I feel I should, primarily because of the number of amazing games that keep being recommended to me but only exist on the i platform. With such a massive install base, it’s a no-brainer for new developers to target a device that has so many multiples of millions downloading and trying apps each day. Why would you look to XBLA or PSN?

Whilst this in itself may have repercussions onto the traditional giants of gaming, the home consoles, the mere infrastructure that has been key to Apple’s dominance in the “smart glass” market could see ramifications in the war of the next console generation.
It’s so subtle that you may not have noticed it. So inbuilt into the fabric of their clean, white devices that many don’t see the wood for the trees. I speak of backwards compatibility.

The size of the App Store is now so vast and so popular that to change the spec of a new piece of hardware such as to invalidate the many hundreds of thousands of Apps that are out there would be suicide. Those Apps are as much a part of the i devices success as anything Apple themselves have done. With each fanfare of a new iPad or iPhone, you can guarantee that as much emphasis is placed on tooting the horn of innovation, behind the scenes equally as much effort is kept in keeping things the same.

Now think back to the start of this generation, a time pre-iPad when Microsoft and Sony were fighting with handbags at dawn as to how they were going to cope with backwards compatibility. Due to a massive architecture change the Xbox was going to handle this in software whereas the PlayStation was just going to ship with a tiny PS2 on board. Back and forth the spat went about whose was going to be better, but take a gander and you’ll see that’s all but disappeared. Sony pulled the feature and Microsoft, no longer at loggerheads, retired any further support. It was a fight for headlines during the transition of generations and now it’s probably fair to say that no-one gives a fig.

But how will it pan out in the switch to Xbox Next and PlayStation 4? Since last time we’ve seen the rise of XBLA and PSN and the concept of our console games living digitally on a cloud. If the rumours about PlayStation dropping the much vaunted Cell chip are to be true, it’s highly unlikely that such a shift architecture would make it easy to just download Journey or Flower to your newer, more powerful PS4.

In an age when so many people, from App Store users to the slow creep of the Nintendo handhelds, expect what they have bought to work ubiquitously on all upgraded devices, what position does this leave Microsoft and Sony? Will it be headlines at dawn again, before slowly fading into the background to be all but forgotten? Or an omission that could alienate a lot of core users?

For my tuppence, I’ve never thrown away or sold a console in my life. My backwards compatibility is formed by a series of boxes in the loft, but I doubt it’s the same for everyone.

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