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The truth about last year's Xbox 360 recall

The EE Times provides some interesting details about a problem that, I think, doomed the Xbox 360:

When Microsoft Corp. announced a mammoth global recall of its Xbox 360 a year ago, the software giant never disclosed the exact source of the game console's heat problem that led to the fiasco.

The Xbox 360 recall a year ago happened because "Microsoft wanted to avoid an ASIC vendor," says Bryan Lewis, research vice president and chief analyst at Gartner. Microsoft designed the graphic chip on its own, cut a traditional ASIC vendor out of the process and went straight to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd., he explained.

But in the end, by going cheap--hoping to save tens of millions of dollars in ASIC design costs, Microsoft ended up paying more than $1 billion for its Xbox 360 recall.

To fix the problem, Microsoft went back to an unnamed ASIC vendor based in the United States and redesigned the chip.

Asked the moral of the story, Lewis said: "Had Microsoft left the graphics processor design to an ASIC vendor in the first place, would they have been able to avoid this problem?

"Probably. The ASIC vendor could have been able to design a graphics processor that dissipates much less power."

That's not the moral of this story. The moral of this story is, "eventually, hubris always gets you in the end."

I recall meeting with the Xbox 360 guys for the first time in May 2005. The person I spent the most time with, Jeff Henshaw, was fantastic, and our meeting resulted in a two-part article, Inside Xbox 360, which may be worth revisiting today. Henshaw aside, I saw some troubling things. First, the Xbox guys were operating like a separate company, which I'm sure seemed like a great idea at the time, located miles away from the main Microsoft campus at a place called Millennium Campus. It's on the edge of the earth if you're familiar with the Redmond area.

More important, I recall that my biggest "gotcha" moment that day was when I saw the Xbox 360 development system, which was three—yes, three—PowerMac G5 towers linked together. Think about that for a second: These systems were ginormous. Three of them were required to emulate a 360. What made this troubling was that Microsoft had just recently revealed the final design of the 360 console itself, a relatively tiny and white box. How the heck, I asked Headrick, was Microsoft going to fit the power of three PowerMac G5s into that tiny little white box?

"Oh, we've got guys who have already figured that out," Headrick told me, smiling. Like a used car salesman, in retrospect. "Smart guys."


That moment has jumped into my memory every single time one of my Xbox 360 has failed to load a game correctly, has scratched a game disc (many times, sadly), or, three times now, has come up dead with the dreaded Red Ring of Death (RROD). It's come up every time I've gotten an email about various 360 issues (thousands of them, I bet), and every time I've read or written a news story about the Xbox 360's many, many reliability issues. And I often think of it when one of my consoles grinds away like a jet engine under load. God, these things are just loud. Too loud.

I remember getting a pre-production Xbox 360 console later that year and seeing the enormous brick of a power supply and thinking, so that's part of the way they got around the tiny console case: The console is actually twice as big as the box. Half of it is just outside the box.

The Xbox 360 is what happens when hubris gets in the way. It started at the top of the upper echelons of the Entertainment and Devices Division at Microsoft and just worked its way down. And the people responsible for the failure of the Xbox 360 are also responsible for the utter failure of the Zune. Any surprise there, really?

Unbelievably the Xbox 360 game library is excellent. Heck, I'm actually playing through the three-year-old "Call of Duty 2" for the upteenth time right now on a secondary Xbox Live account just because it's a great game. Too bad I have to play it on a hunk of unreliable junk that was foisted on us by people who are more concerned with their own image than with reality.

It's a shame. And it was all completely unnecessary.

I'd like to point out that the Sony PlayStation 3, for all its troubles in the marketplace, has been incredibly reliable. You never hear any stories about this thing failing. It runs quietly, even whisper-quietly, depending on what you're doing. And it's a bit bigger than the 360, because the power supply is on the inside where it belongs. Unlike the Wii, the PS3, like the 360, is a technological power house. And yet there are no problems. None. Huh.


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