Customer Disservice

[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website]

I’m an indulgent father, as any of my friends will attest, and I’m also a bit of a gadget freak, so it is little surprise that my son was the lucky recipient of a cool black Xbox 360 Elite on his recent birthday.

He has been an Xbox user since the original console launched in 2002, moving to the much more powerful 360 when it came out last year, enjoying games like Oblivion and Halo 3 and spending a lot of time on the online service, Xbox Live.

Now that Microsoft has started offering full game and film downloads from the Live Marketplace it seemed like a good idea to upgrade, since the Elite sports a reasonably sized 120Gb hard drive compared to the frankly embarrassing 20Gb of the original.

Having two consoles means that multi-player games will be a lot more fun when his friends come over, and may even give me a chance to improve my own rather minimal Halo skills and attempt the game in something other than ‘dorky dad’ mode.

Unfortunately we haven’t yet been able to experience the new console in all its HD glory because we’re waiting to transfer the game save files, themes, arcade games, episodes of Red v Blue and all the other stuff that Max has accumulated on the hard drive of his old console.

There’s little point in setting up the new one without all of this stuff, and no point transferring Max’s Xbox Live account onto the bigger machine until he can use it fully.

We can’t just get on with the job because despite the fact that the Xbox 360 is bristling with USB sockets – you can even plug your iPod into the thing – and has an Ethernet port for network connectivity there is no way to get the two machines to talk to each other without a magic cable.

A special cable that you have to send away for by printing off a form and posting a letter.

It isn’t even just a simple connection cable.  You have to remove your 20Gb drive from your old Xbox, take the 120Gb drive from your new Xbox, plug the 20Gb drive into your new Xbox, plug the cable into the back – not the front! – port on your new Xbox, plug the cable… it goes on and on and on.

And the process can take an hour or more, warns the Microsoft website, even for a paltry 20Gb of data.

Let’s compare the process with buying a new Macintosh computer to replace an existing Mac. When you turn on your new purchase it asks you if you’ve got a Mac already and offers to clone it, copying files and settings simply, easily and quickly. It is a joy – when my friend Isabel dropped her Macbook and cracked the screen the day before a trip to China she managed to copy the whole system onto a new computer while we ate pizza together.

And if you copy your Mac then the old one is unchanged, so as long as you follow software licensing terms you can carry on using it. Not the Xbox 360, though, because once your data has been copied from the old to the new drive the transfer process erases the contents of your old drive.

That’s right. It trashes it, just in case you might be evil enough to want to keep it as a safe backup or access a saved game on the old console. Microsoft has decided not to allow you to do this, so you had better hope that your new drive doesn’t have a manufacturing fault.

Even when you’ve done the transfer a lot of the stuff you copy will not work properly.
Arcade games and TV shows are transferred, but the licenses that allow you to play them are apparently associated with the serial number of the console, so they won’t play on your new machine unless you are actually online and connected to Xbox Live.  And any film rentals will simply not be moved.

Oh, and there’s one last insult; the cable you get has been specially designed for the purpose, so you’re supposed to use it once and then throw it away – or rather, dispose of it ‘in accordance with the Disposal of Waste and Electronic Equipment Guidelines’.

The simple fact is that the process could have been made simple and easy if Microsoft had chosen to do so.  The Xbox 360 is a computer, and they could write software that would let two consoles talk to each other over USB or Ethernet and copy files across.

But doing that would have created a way for owners to get direct access to the hard drives of the machines, and they might possibly have used that access to take control of the computer, something Microsoft cannot countenance.

They could have written a tool to let you de-authorise one Xbox from playing your content and authorising your new console, but that would have created  a possibility of abuse and they would rather not bother and leave it to their customers to sort out the ensuing mess.

A console is a locked down system, and the price of playing is to cede all control to the manufacturer, to accept the limitations they have put in place and to put up with the inconvenience and irritation of having to wait a week before you let your son play with his birthday present.

Microsoft aren’t alone, of course. Sony and Nintendo make strenuous efforts to keep their games systems closed, Apple has put a vast amount of effort into locking and relocking the iPhone, and we recently heard how Western Digital hard drives will refuse to share video or audio files over a network just in case doing so would breach copyright.

But the confusion, complication, waste and simple stupidity that Microsoft have introduced into what should be a straightforward upgrade process is the clearest possible demonstration of just what we lose when we cede control to the content owners.

I don’t think Max will be moving up to the next generation of Microsoft consoles when they emerge. I don’t need the hassle.

Bill’s Links
The gory details:
How it works:
Western Digital: