The Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox game consoles wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a roundtable meeting with Bill Gates and five other Microsoft execs in spring 1999.
The meeting wasn’t held at Microsoft’s lavish Redmond, Wa. campus, or even on Microsoft-owned grounds. It was at the Semiahmoo Resort, a gorgeous part of Washington state that sits just below the Candian border, where Microsoft holds an annual retreat for its vice presidents and leadership.
It’s basically in Canada:
During the annual meeting in spring 1999, however, there was an addition.
Instead of just listening to executives give presentations for two days, Microsoft added a new activity called “Open Space” where attendees would propose an idea for the company. Former Microsoft VP and original Xbox leader Robbie Bach explained the process in an interview with Tech Insider:
There are pieces of paper up on a wall, and you go and write your idea on a piece of paper and stand next to it. And then they go around the room and you announce your idea. Everybody listens. And then they say ‘OK, go decide which group you want to be in.’ Everybody walks to a group. Guys who get no votes get taken off the wall and have to go to somebody else’s group. There’s a couple of topics that end up being pretty similar; they move those together. And then they say, ‘This group’s going to that room, this group’s going to that room, etc. Go discuss, and come back and give us a 10-minute report.’ So we have two hours to go discuss something.
It was in those two hours that the concept of Xbox was born. Hardware VP Rick Thompson is credited with the idea: How about a game console?
Bach who was Thompson’s boss, joined Thompson’s discussion group. As did Microsoft co-founder and leader Bill Gates — despite Gates having his own idea for how to solve “a highly technical data structure issue,” no less.
The meeting room wasn’t nearly as ambitious as the ideas therein.
“We went to what is a converted bedroom. So they moved the beds around so we could sit and talk. And so we’re in this sort of roundtable in the converted bedroom,” Bach told Tech Insider.
According to Bach, Thompson was already aware of a handful of “garage shops” within Microsoft that shared his belief in a Microsoft-produced game console. Folks from failed game console company 3D0, from ambitious-but-too-early internet company WebTV, and from Microsoft’s internal DirectX software team all had different ideas of how to attack what Thompson identified as Microsoft’s reason for entering the console space.
Thompson’s plan was to take stock of these various approaches within Microsoft and figure out how best to solve what he viewed as an upcoming problem: Sony’s plans to enter the living room with a computer, which would eventually be the PlayStation 2.
Here’s Bach’s description of the meeting:
Rick [Thompson] knew about some sort of garage shop work that a couple of different groups were doing in the company around gaming, and presented the case that Sony was going into the living room with what was effectively a computer, and that Microsoft should be there. There was a bit of technical work that had been done in the company, and we talked about what that would mean, and how that would play out. Bill asked some questions. So there’s a good roundtable discussion of it, and from that Bill said, ‘OK, so, I need to meet with these guys.’
It was another few months before Gates was fully convinced that the Xbox game console concept was worth investing in for Microsoft. First, Gates asked then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to “determine if we could make a good business case for the project,” Bach writes in his upcoming book, “Xbox Revisited,” which comes out on September 3.
As these things go, Ballmer asked Microsoft’s VP of Hardware — Rick Thompson, AKA the guy who originally had the idea for a Microsoft game console — to “firm up the product plan and create a business case for pursuing what was code-named the Xbox project,” Bach writes.
“Six months later, they approved — for the first time — Xbox on December 21st, 1999,” Bach told Tech Insider.
Just shy of two years later, the original Xbox launched in North America on November 15, 2001, kickstarting a massively impactful series of game consoles, and marking the first American game console success since the Atari.
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