With Xbox 'xCloud' game streaming, Surface 'Andromeda' should gun for a gaming focus

Microsoft's xCloud game streaming service was unveiled earlier this week, detailing how the company plans to reach "hundreds of millions" more gamers by streaming AAA Xbox content to mobile devices and beyond.

While Android and iOS are dominant in mobile gaming, those platforms are typically associated with predatory "pay2win" free to play-type titles, far flung from the premium experience we enjoy on PlayStation, Nintendo, Xbox, and PC. The blockbuster titles associated with core titles are extremely costly to build, however, making the need to reach a wider audience absolutely paramount for the industry's growth (and indeed, health). That's one of the driving factors behind Sony's PlayStation Now, NVIDIA's GeForce Now, Google's Project Stream, and now, Microsoft's Project xCloud.

Streaming games to devices far too weak to run them otherwise represents massive untapped potential in the market, particularly so on Android, which remains the world's largest mobile platform. Given Android's dominating position, there's no way they would be able to block xCloud or other competing game streaming services either, without raising eyebrows among anti-competition regulators across the globe. All Microsoft (and others) have to do, is get the service right. Naturally, Microsoft is arguably in a better position to do this than most, including Google itself, thanks to its vast established library of digital games.

However, the idea of playing core games on a phone is completely alien to many, particularly casual gamers who are perhaps more likely to play something like Candy Crush than Assassin's Creed Odyssey, for no reason other than the convenience of grabbing a free app and killing some time. Lowering the barriers to the point where Microsoft will be able to convert casual mobile gamers into core console gamers might be straight up impossible. That said, I think Microsoft has an opportunity, combined with Surface, to create desire among regular consumers by setting up a compelling hardware narrative.

Everything we know about Surface "Andromeda"

Surface 'Andromeda' or the Xbox Gameboy

Surface 'Andromeda' is a mythical, near-legendary rumor of a folding Windows tablet, designed to accompany your PC and mobile phone. So far, Microsoft hasn't even teased the existence of the device, which we only know about due to rumors, patent applications, and the occasional leak. The abundance of the rumors, however, helps us to paint a fairly accurate composite of what Andromeda could look like.

Andromeda would be able to ride the boundaries between many different form factors.

With a center fold, Andromeda would be able to ride the boundaries between many different form factors. Folded in half it would appear like a regular smart phone, flattened out, it could be used to multi-task across two different apps on separate displays. Put in tent mode, it could be used to catch a movie, and indeed, folded half way, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nintendo 3DS.

If Microsoft is planning to bill Andromeda as a PC companion, rather than a smartphone replacement, ignoring its potential as a gaming platform would be absolute craziness. PC is synonymous with gaming, and will remain so indefinitely. Andromeda would represent a unique opportunity to create differentiation against competing mobile hardware, and Microsoft has the tech to make it happen.

CShell, UWP, and WinCore OS

There was a hint in the xCloud reveal blog post that Microsoft will allow developers to customize their own touch controls on a per-game basis, rather than just fall back on a basic ABXY digital Xbox controller. Indeed, smartphones won't have shoulder triggers, making the need for a high-quality touch overlay absolutely necessary to ensure a decent experience. Microsoft also showed off smartphones docked with an Xbox controller utilizing some kind of grip housing, but it's not the most elegant solution.

We've already seen some rumors internally that leveraging the dynamics of CShell, combined with patented features of Andromeda and the modularity of WinCore OS, a scenario where the lower portion of the display could be altered dynamically to accommodate gaming is entirely plausible.


Xbox (Image credit: Xbox)

Envision a scenario where you begin streaming Sea of Thieves on the upper portion of the display, while the lower portion morphs into a digital gamepad bespoke to the game, with iconography that explains what each button does, rather than simply showing the regular "ABXY" Xbox buttons. Lining up these APIs with any two-screen form factor Android is likely cooking up would be a huge win as well, even if it isn't Microsoft who ends up popularizing the idea of a dual-screen display.

In either case, Andromeda could serve as a stunning example of how game streaming could inform and improve existing smartphone form factors to accommodate new gaming scenarios. Squeezing all of those UI buttons onto a single display isn't always going to be the most intuitive solution.

Minecraft already shows this is possible

It's hard to discuss these sorts of scenarios without mentioning the Bedrock edition of Minecraft, which is a pioneering game in many ways. The blocky craft 'em up continues to be a force to be reckoned with, reaching over 90 million active players at the most recently-announced milestone. Why is it so successful? It's because it is bloody everywhere.

You can get Minecraft on your phone, you can get it on your tablet, you can get it on VR, on Nintendo Switch, on Xbox, and more. Not only is it everywhere, it also features one of the most dynamic user interfaces out there, conforming to the device you're using. There is no place where this is more apparent than UWP.

As soon as Minecraft for Windows 10 detects you're using an Xbox controller, it just works, joystick cursor snapping automatically to different UI elements. If you touch the screen, suddenly, touch controls pop-up automagically. Jiggle a mouse, and boom, now it's a tried and true PC game. All of this works, dynamically, without rebooting the game, without flipping a setting switch. The game just detects how you're playing, and then accommodates you.

There's no reason why games streamed from xCloud can't work in the same way, particularly now Xbox will support mouse and keyboard controls natively. Running in a UWP container on a Microsoft server, Microsoft will be able to send that dynamic experience to whatever device you're using, conforming to your inputs dynamically. The fact Minecraft does this dynamically across devices is a huge factor in how it became so pervasive.

Andromeda as a showcase device

Concept by Daniel Breyer.

Concept by Daniel Breyer.

As was true with Windows 10 Mobile, the idea of Andromeda becoming a mainstream hardware staple seems unlikely. It will struggle with the same issues Windows 10 Mobile struggled with, a lack of quality apps, primarily. But that needn't be true for games, thanks to xCloud.

Like the Surface Pro before it, Andromeda should serve as an example to PC manufacturers, and even Android manufacturers, on how form factor innovation can create new app ecosystem scenarios and new possibilities. While the idea of a two-screen display might not be the most compelling for things like multi-tasking productivity apps, it almost becomes a necessity to facilitate on-screen controls of more complicated games.

I say bring on the Surface Gameboy Xboy, and lets see what Microsoft software and hardware can really do when working in harmony.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • Hear hear Jez. The concept by Daniel Breyer is exactly what they need, along with customizable controls. They have a real chance at market share here if they play to their strengths, productivity and gaming. This should be a priority for MS not just a pet project.
  • I agree. I do think Microsoft have been redoing things in the back end for next gen. We all know Windows 8 and the Xbox one were a bit of a flop but Windows 10 seems to be pointing them in the right direction and to add the Xbox one x game pass to Microsoft improving things you can see them starting to take shape. Microsoft know they don't need to be the front runners in hardware and let's be honest even though devices in the past like the zune or surface have been far better than others on the market Microsoft have never pushed then the way others have. But what they do know how to do is deliver in there software and in the cloud is one place they also lead. Bringing Xbox to android iOS as well as other devices this is where they can lead. They have the right tools now they just need to deliver.
  • I like the name "Xbox Surf" better!
  • How about SurfX? Sounds like Surface but.... :-)
  • Lol silly but works.
  • Surf Excel? Ppl would definitely troll it. Surface X (as in 10) should be it.
  • That's a great idea. Gives it a niche that it seems to be struggling to find otherwise.
  • I wouldn't buy anything that looks like that concept image
  • Paragraph 5. By all accounts, Andromeda has phone capability, so there's no need to use it in conjunction with a phone.
  • A two screen foldable device will be perfect for portable gaming. Microsoft totally needs to leverage their position with Xbox and their games with Andromeda. They should do something exclusive with Andromeda (or maybe just Windows Core OS so other OEMs can get in on the action) and Xbox games. I don't think they should allow these on Android. A lot of Xbox gamers (and there are millions of them) will rationalize getting an Andromeda for the sole purpose of portable gaming. It will be a super-duper bonus that Andromeda will also be a phone, tablet, and dockable computer. Microsoft plays really fair (almost to a fault), but I think this time maybe they should play more like their competition; that is like Google who didn't make apps for Windows 10. The gamers can totally swing mobile over to Windows 10.
  • Surface Andromeda + Tactus Technology + Xcloud, Now that's a lethal combo. Unfortunately this is the quickest video i could find demoing the dynamic touchscreen by Tactus. https://youtu.be/t4eh-Cn3Pzk
  • Six years old. Wonder what has changed since
  • Cloud gaming on Andromeda was on my wish list for surface phone features since 2016;")
  • But why would you need an Andromeda? The whole idea of xCloud is to use the devices you already have. As a gaming device, Andromeda would be completely missing the point.
  • In every Microsoft video, they always say "everybody in the world" but every product or service the release are for "everybody in the USA"
  • Hear, hear
  • Really hope this happens but history would tell us that after a year or so it would be abandoned if not well supported. I loved my Nokia lumias and other windows phones but sadly they never caught on. If xbox streaming is possi le and surface functionality remains it could be a sleeper hit. It may be a little early yet but I suppose without it even being officially confirmed we are probably a year or so away from finding out anyway.
  • Simple! The next Surface! 4in1: 3in1 plus game console! Real game changer.
  • I love the streaming idea why not make a Microsoft switch type console to take advantage of this as well? Except make it more intuitive and less wonky like the Nintendo switch? They could easily do this and still streaming on any other device.
  • X-Surf. calling it.
  • So this article just stirred an epiphany. I keep hearing and agree that Microsoft seems to have a marketing problem. But then I read this article about the Xbox doing so well and Minecraft doing so well. It made me wonder why are other Microsoft products so mediocre in their release and market penetration as well as, their lack of advertising. Then it occurred to me. Software needs partners to get widespread release. Hardware doesn't and shouldn't. Xbox is the only Microsoft hardware product that isn't a show-the-industry-what's-possible device like the surface line. Windows mobile was built by Microsoft through Nokia, but they really wanted other OEMs to build and advertise them. So they didn't advertise and grow mobile themselves so as not to step on any toes. The OEMs clearly had no interest aside from HP in enterprise and windows mobile failed. The Band was another effort to show-the-industry-what's-possible then license the tech. But no partner built that device and it went nowhere. Harmon Kardon was the only company to build a smart speaker and they did little to promote it. (That almost felt like Microsoft bank rolled it, but Harman Kardon wasn't all in) Home hub was announced with great enthusiasm from Microsoft, but they announced it as "our partners will build and release smart screens." Two years later, no smart screens from OEMs. Yet Google and Amazon are rolling out their versions and they aren't relying on OEMs to build and advertise them. Now if Microsoft does release a Cortana home hub smart screen, it will be too little too late when they seemed to have the momentum to be first in this space. It even seems like the lack of a usb-c port on the newest surface devices can only be explained logically when viewed through the lens of we can't make it too good that it out-competes our partners devices. It seems for Microsoft to be successful in hardware (and likely expand its software, see Harman Kardon speaker) Microsoft needs to just do it and be all in, like Xbox, rather than rely on partners to take their ideas and run with them, advertise them, etc. I think with Andromeda they need to build it and market it as if they are the only one who will. Especially since the OEMs snubbed them in mobile before. Google and Amazon aren't relying on partners for new device releases. (Okay maybe Samsung for a folding phone, but Google already has their foot in the door on that one for the software) Amazon built their own smart speaker, advertised it themselves, sold it themselves. Now others are licensing Alexa (the software) to be put in their own devices that the OEM created and didn't need to be inspired by Amazon. Microsoft and their "inspire the OEMs" method means they advertise only to the OEMs. It almost sounds demeaning now to say Microsoft is building stuff to inspire OEMs. It comes across as OEMs don't have any creativity. Maybe in laptops they had gone stagnant, but this culture shouldn't apply to new devices. That culture needs to end. Andromeda shouldn't be a demonstration device for partners. If an OEM copies it, so be it, but don't rely on that expectation. Build and market it like they do Xbox and it will have a much higher chance of success. Wait on the OEMs and it will end up too little too late like so many devices before it. Thoughts?
  • Put your finger on it. Nadella has a demonstrably faulty business model in which MS demonstrates stuff then assumes that the world of OEMs will say "oh thank you o great and powerful oz". This explains why Lummia failed and why there is a ginormous lag between announcement and delivery. If Nadella had poured cash into apps instead of the pockets of Apple and Android he might have had some success. The clown is just not funny.
  • No, Lumia failed because consumers don't care. If they did, they would not keep buying iPhones, which are inferior in every way over Android devices. How do you make them jump ship? You can either throw tons of money at them and give the phone away for free, have a real standout hardware design (and MS is a software company) or use the existing ecosystems with your software. Which is what MS did. And that was probably the smartest thing they could do.