James Wallis levels with you

Wii want Wiinformation

In all the hubbub and furore about the commercial success of the Wii, its strengths as a games machine and its viability against the PS3, one thing’s been missed. Nintendo is about to snatch a huge crown out from under the noses of Sony and Microsoft. While the Xbox 360 and PS3 fight it out to provide the best online play, movie downloads and iPod playback in the name of being not games consoles but Home Entertainment Centres, the Wii is making a stealth approach on the position of market leader in a different space: the Home Information Hub.

When you switch on a Wii, you see a brief text screen and then you’re at the system’s front end. This is a grid of 12 boxes like massive desktop icons, six filled and six waiting for downloads either from the Virtual Console (retro games) or in the form of ‘channels’. Your out-of-the-box Wii already has two (Photos and Forecast, meaning weather), plus the News Channel (not up yet but video here) and the optional-download Internet Channel. That leaves space on the main screen for five more. Scroll right and there’s another grid of 12 boxes waiting to be filled—and another, and another.

A Wii desktop. My Wii desktop, in fact. Would you believe there's no other images of one on the net?

I believe Nintendo’s intention with these channel-spaces is to make the Wii a one-stop at-your-fingertips centre for all the information you want at the touch of a button or flick of a Wiimote. When you think about whether you should take an umbrella, or what happened in the cricket, they want your primary source for that information (and by primary I mean easiest and fastest to access, most convenient and after a while instinctive) to be the Wii. It won’t download movies, it won’t hold all your MP3s, but barely a day will pass without you consulting it. That at least is the intention.

I’ll go further. Wii channels you will see before long will include: sports news; business news and share-price checking; travel news which remembers your regular journeys; family health; food, diet and fitness, probably tied to the shopping channel and maybe even to the fitness section of Wii Sports; and (longer shots these) online grocery shopping with delivery in association with a major supermarket chain; online pizza delivery; and more.

How can I predict this? Because I’ve been here before.

Six years ago I was part of 3Com’s short-lived internet appliance division. We brought one product to market, called Audrey. With 50s styling and a 10″ touch-screen, Audrey was a cross between a grown-up Palm Pilot—more of a family organiser than a personal one, it could sync two Palms and combine their calenders and address books—and a dedicated net-machine, with IR keyboard, web browser and a sweet email client that would record and embed audio and pictures at—literally—the touch of a button. It was, in a word, sweeet.

Audrey. Gorgeous, wasn't she?

But it was more than that. Directly below the screen was a dial, like an old TV. Settings corresponded to six basic information channels, updated regularly throughout the day so that whenever you touched the dial, you had access to information no more than a couple of hours old. And those channels were, in rough order: weather, news, sports, business, showbiz news, and space for us and users to add more. To people who remember five paragraphs up, this may sound a bit familiar.

One of my jobs was choosing and creating the information channels for the European launch, so I was intimately involved with this end of the business. And while the Wii is very far from an Audrey knockoff—Audrey didn’t play games for a start—I recognise many of the thought processes underlying the look and feel of the Wii’s interface design. Time-to-data, for example. An Xbox 360 takes 22 seconds to boot, even with no disc in the drive. To get to its desktop the Wii takes less than half as long, and that includes pressing the (A) button to synch the Wiimote.

This is crucial. The Wii is not the only device that can give you this kind of information on demand. Opera Widgets and Firefox Extensions can put this functionality in your browser, as can Google if you’re prepared to type a couple of words. Avantgo will put it on your smartphone or PDA. The Apple iPhone will have it built-in, judging by the early screenshots. But the key point is the time between demand and delivery, and it’s my bet that the Wii will beat all of them on speed and ease of accessibility.

(This was something Audrey did astonishingly well. It had an instant-on, and though it was pre-broadband it logged onto our server five times a day to get updates, so the information you saw was never more than a couple of hours old. If Nintendo is smart—and the name it’s chosen for the Wii’s internet connection, WiiConnect24, indicates it has been—the Wii channels will do the same. In other words, when you want the weather forecast the device won’t need to retrieve it from a server because the latest update will already be stored on board.)

Nintendo clearly considers time-to-data so crucial that it’s done away with any Wii splash screen at startup. This is, if you’ll pardon the geek-pun, revolutionary. When was the last time you switched on a console and didn’t get the brand-name front and centre? By removing its own logo to save a couple of seconds of load-time, Nintendo has signalled that it considers the Wii to be more than just the next generation of games machine. That may turn out to be its biggest play of all.

Categorised as: consoles | technology

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