Nintendo is not Apple

^ That’s a compliment, not an insult. The similarities between Nintendo and Apple seem overwhelming at first blush:

  • They both develop tightly integrated hardware/software experiences. Apple’s minimalist, Rams-inspired aesthetic is an unmistakable as Nintendo’s dorky neoclassicism.
  • They share conservative attitudes toward specs. The iPhone didn’t have LTE til late 2012, and still has considerably less RAM than its Android rivals; the best-selling Wii was standard-def.
  • They’ve both had to compete with Microsoft, with varying levels of success. Apple has basically defeated Microsoft in mobile; Nintendo won a surprising victory over the Xbox 360 in the seventh generation, but the Wii U’s prospects don’t look so good against the upcoming Xbox One.

For these superficial similarities, Nintendo attracts a lot of attention (most of it negative) from Apple-centric bloggers who are eager to suggest remedies for Nintendo’s current struggles (also, many of these individuals are of an age that would have been the prime audience for Nintendo’s gold/silver ages with the NES and SNES, respectively). Perhaps they also see Nintendo’s predicament as similar to Apple’s dismal 1997, when it needed Office and a cash injection from its main rival just to stay afloat.

But there are a number of differences that make the Apple/Nintendo comparison faulty:

  • Making one’s own hardware is a given for the dedicated gaming industry’s major players, and it alone does not make Nintendo special or different from its rivals. Starting with Atari, and continuing on to Sega, Nintendo, and Sony, if you made a gaming platform, you made your own own hardware. Even Microsoft – a software company, at least during its heyday – had to delve into hardware as an entry fee to the console business. In this respect, the gaming world is a lot different than the consumer/enterprise software realm, in which software-first or software-mostly companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook can wield great influence without dabbling in hardware (tho that is certainly changing)
  • Accordingly, Nintendo is not a hardware company. It’s a software company that makes hardware that makes its software better. Look at the N64 controller: examining its analog stick and trigger button, you just know that Nintendo’s hardware team was future-proofing it for Ocarina of Time and Super Mario World 64. In this respect, Nintendo is the opposite of Apple, which is a hardware company that makes software that enhances its hardware – iOS is much like a virtuosic exercise in preserving battery and maximizing touch technology.
  • The suggested remedy for Nintendo – that they make iOS games – is appropriately the reverse of the remedy that Apple needed and got back in 1997, i.e., the porting of Microsoft Office to Mac OS. Since Nintendo is a software company at heart, it would seem to make sense that, if desperate, they take those assets to other platforms; by contrast, Apple is a hardware company, so dire straits fittingly translated into trying to attract more software to their own platform.
  • If it’s not clear by now, you should realize that Nintendo is uninterested in making a platform. It makes toys and the workshop/play space in which those toys are used. That’s the total opposite of what Apple has done, especially with iOS.

John Gruber and John Siracusa recently had a great deover Nintendo’s future. Gruber argued that the lucrative DS line could be jeopardized by its basic requirement that users carry a dedicated handheld in addition to their phones – I can definitely see this happening. But Siracusa hit upon some subtle advantages that Nintendo may still have, especially in terms of gaming experience.

Discussions of Apple vs. Nintendo (or Nintendo vs Nokia/RIM) often lead with anecdotal stories like “my kid doesn’t know what Nintendo is,” which I think are unhelpful. The tech literati are not really Nintendo’s audience, and their children are probably a small subset of all Nintendo fans. The recently announced 2DS is not a device to be analyzed with the same eye as a new iPhone or Nexus device. Still, I’ll contribute my own – I’m already fatigued of Android/iOS gaming. The limited input mechanism (touch) means that games cannot do as much with on-screen information or elements since fingers get in the way, and the freemium pricing of so many mobile games means that they often do not over immersive experiences but rather play–by-ear arcade-like ones.

Sure, there was a time when people defended BlackBerry’s hardware keyboard as a non-negotiable feature for plowing through “serious work” and email. But as Siracusa pointed out, hardware keyboards were superseded because software keyboards imitate their every last functionality while adding exclusive features like predicative typing. Touch screens cannot do that with gaming controls, if only because there’s no QWERTY-like standard for controls: every controller may have buttons, but their arrangements and numbers are radically different from one system to the next. The fact that Nintendo has realized this has been a historic source of strength – it’s hard to appreciate now, for example, how groundbreaking that N64 controller was in introducing analog sticks to the console world.

The variety of controller layouts is matched by the variety of software that they power. Games are, on the whole, a much more fragmented sector, in terms of design and input, than mobile apps. What are mobile devices used for? Standards like email and Web browsing, mostly similar social media clients with a standard set of gestures, passive content consumption. They don’t need varied controls or inputs because their specialty tasks don’t require them

Now, imagine Nintendo trying to bring its quirky, unique sense of sophisticated hardware-specific software to iOS, a platform which takes for granted that no third-party app is more special than any other one and as such. Even with an iOS controller peripheral, I don’t think it would work – not only would it de-incentivize customers to purchase Nintendo’s own hardware, but it would create a bad experience, topped off with the inevitable long string of 1-star App Store reviews bemoaning users’ unawareness that they needed a separately sold item to play the $14.99 app they purchased.

Whether Nintendo can make its traditional approach work going forward is a separate question from whether porting software to iOS would be a good idea. For now, the company appears to be in sound financial shape, and even a minor rebound in Wii U sales would help buoy its already robust DS business. And mobile device sophistication need not be synonymous with consolidation – a breakthrough gaming device, like the original Wii was 2006, could fit alongside the growing fleet or smart wristbands, HUD displays, and smart watches that co-exist peacefully with phones and tablets.

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