Is xCloud – the Xbox game streaming service – a glimpse at the future of the desktop?

 [Disclosure: The companies mentioned are clients of the author.]

We are in the early stages of moving local processing to the cloud and transitioning from the modern PC to something far closer to a terminal. This week, for example, HP launched their new Chromebox Chromebooks and added them to their DaaS (Device as a Service) plan. Chrome-based products initially anticipated a cloud future at a time when Microsoft didn’t seem that interested in the cloud.

Man, have things changed: the Windows Virtual Desktop is now the lead contender for this eventual migration.

Thin client solutions have been around for a while, but – outside of tightly targeted groups with low-performance needs – it’s been a niche market, largely due to latency and wireless performance. With 5G and WiFi 6, according to Qualcomm, both become nonissues. But the market needs something that’s a solid proof point, and that appears to be the xCloud gaming service.

What gaming brings to the table

While latency is annoying in desktop apps, in competitive eSports, it’s a deal-breaker. You can’t be competitive with a twitch game if you have too much latency. Latency is even more problematic for MMOs (Massive Multi-Player Online games), limiting the size of groups and badly damaging the overall experience.

For cloud gaming to work, gaming latency not only needs to start low, it also needs to remain low regardless of network and system loading. And the loading is significant because current-generation gaming requires massive levels of performance, increasingly realistic levels of realism and increasingly powerful AIs for NPCs (non-playing characters) that will push the limits of both the network and the servers providing the service. It’s also forcing Microsoft to rethink the design of those servers to optimize for these heavy loads.

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