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Xbox One's lack of backwards compatibility is tactical, not technical

While Sony has announced plans to use cloud gaming network Gaikai to stream PS3 titles to both PS4 and Vita beginning next year in North America, Microsoft said this week that it currently has no intention of offering backwards compatibility on Xbox One. That’s not to say the company hasn’t got the capability to do so, but right now it would make no sense to commit to such a possibility.

However, in September, news emerged that Microsoft had been showing off Halo 4 running comfortably on both PC and Windows Phone as part of an internal demonstration of a prototype cloud technology. But this week, Albert Penello, senior director of product management and planning at Xbox, told Polygon it simply isn’t possible to provide a quality game streaming service to consumers at this stage. So what's the problem?

Well, it looks like Penello is cleverly opting to play Microsoft’s cards much closer to his chest. It's a tactic far removed from the arrogant and bullish messaging delivered by Microsoft at Xbox One’s announcement in May, when the company lost significant kudos among gamers and the press.

"It's really cool and really problematic, all at the same time, insofar as it's really super cool if you happen to have the world's most awesome internet connection,” he said of cloud game streaming. "So managing quality of service, the tolerance people will have for it being crappy. Can you imagine, in this day and age, with the bad information around, and we can't control the quality of that experience and make sure it's good, or have to tell people they can't do it?”

Having blundered so hard on numerous occasions following Xbox One’s announcement, Microsoft is striving to play catch up in the next-gen console marketing and PR battle. From public apologies to executive resignations, and numerous policy reversals to free game promotions, it has used every trick in its sizeable armoury to muscle its way back into the race. Sony, meanwhile, has built a PR campaign on 'doing what Microsoft isn't doing'. I can still hear the "So-ny, So-ny" chants following Jack Tretton's keynote at E3.

With Microsoft having steadied the ship in time for launch, Penello’s non-committal attitude to the possibility of cloud game streaming on Xbox One is canny. It makes sense for Microsoft to temper expectations rather than make promises it may not uphold. This way Microsoft can keep the possibility of backwards compatibility--a goodwill-generating feature if ever there was one--in its back pocket for a rainy day.

In the meantime, Microsoft appears content to let Sony try and meet the targets it has already set itself in public--and hopefully fall at the first hurdle. The PlayStation maker, for its part, has yet to specify how backwards compatible games will be accessed; i.e., for previous owners, available for purchase a la carte, or as part of an all-in-one subscription like PlayStation Plus. Sony hasn't even spoken about the actual, technical and bandwidth limits yet.

Penello told Polygon: "This is one of the things where the network just has to get better before we can do it. When that happens, you're going to have a really interesting conversation around that, can I actually run Xbox One games that way as well. I'll be really interested to see how our friends in the Bay Area [at PlayStation] deal with this problem. But I can tell you, it's totally possible. We like it, we're fans of the cloud. We're not shy about that."

But let’s be clear, Microsoft has made no firm commitment to introducing backwards compatibility as an Xbox One feature. The company said in May that only five per cent of customers play games for previous systems on newer ones, and Penello has previously acknowledged that enabling backwards compatibility via cloud streaming would likely prove a costly venture for Microsoft. Penello’s latest comments chiefly serve to highlight the fact that Microsoft is playing a smarter game now than it has at any point since Xbox One’s reveal. I, for one, applaud them for that.