December 26th, 2004, 14:54
Tiger Telematics' press statements have called it 'the softest of soft launches', but compared to the razzmatazz of the Sony and Nintendo roadshows, Gizmondo's debut bordered on the flaccid. After signing a last-minute deal with Nvidia to equip the device with a more powerful GoForce 3D graphics part, manufacture and testing of the console had to begin afresh. As a result, the company was unable to supply any units to retail at launch, instead distributing the small number of units it had ready to some of the 560,000 customers it claims have made internet pre-orders. Another casualty of the GoForce switch has been the machine's gaming launch line-up, with the first three titles, SuperDrop Mania, StuntCar Extreme and Angel Fish, delayed until after Christmas. Other titles are being reworked and optimised to take advantage of the machine's newly increased power. [br][br]It's an embarrassing start for the Gizmondo, whose aggressive television and internet advertising had been timed for the launch, but the machine's range of capabilities mean it is not nonsensical as a standalone purchase. Running Windows Media Player 9, and allowing music and video files to be copied direct to the device's SD-card storage via USB 2.0, it is a more immediately credible multimedia device than any other gaming hybrid yet announced. Current owners will also be able to distract themselves with the machine's GPS functions while they wait for the games to arrive. Out of the box, the device is capable of sending an update to any mobile phone number, allowing the recipient to see a map displaying the Gizmondo's (and the Gizmondo owner's) current location. [br][br]After such a disastrous launch, there is a temptation to write off the Gizmondo, but as its developer reveals more of its future plans, there are more and more indications that to do so might be unwise. The intention now is to have stock ready for a full retail rollout, supported by optimised game software, by early February next year.[br] [br]It's not yet clear how big an impact the GoForce chip will have on the kind of games Gizmondo can run; the 'Xbox in your pocket' is a compelling marketing line, but so far the company has nothing to show which backs up its claim. However, there's no question that the machine would have otherwise been badly underpowered going into 2005, so, despite the launch headaches, the new graphics chip has undoubtedly strengthened its position.[br][br]Also unconfirmed at this stage is just how heavyweight the future line-up might be. It's known that the company is in talks with major publishers, and if Gizmondo can gain access to big brand franchises, its gaming credibility will be greatly enhanced for the wider market. Brands alone aren't enough - as the N-Gage's early months showed - but Tiger Telematics is confident that it has the skills to tailor home console hits to maximise their appeal on a handheld. Its recent acquisition of Warthog has given it access to Tusk, a game-porting engine it believes will streamline the process of adapting games. The engine will already be being pressed into service following deals with SCi and Microsoft to launch games such as Age Of Empires and the Conflict series on the Gizmondo. The game pricing policy, which stretches from £10 for the simpler launch titles to £30 for prestige games, also indicates a greater sophistication in its understanding of the gaming market than some of its current rivals have shown.[br][br]Its multimedia ambitions are equally far-reaching. To support the device's use as a music player, Tiger Telematics will be launching a commercial music download website, using the OD2 service which backs Coca Cola, HMV and MSN's European music download portals. The company is also confident it will have full GPS software ready for the February 'hard' launch, making the unit's £230 pricetag seem suddenly much more competitive when compared to £400 in-car units. A car cradle and other accessories will be available to back this kind of usage. GPS also lets the Gizmondo act as a security device: set up a 'geo-fence' - a virtual perimeter - around the Gizmondo, leave it in the boot when you park, and if the Gizmondo (and therefore your car) leaves the perimeter, you'll receive an instant alert to your mobile phone. Later in the year full email support will follow. [br][br]Gizmondo could hardly have more to prove. Recent bullish announcements that Tiger Telematics expects the unit's price point to go as low as £50 within a year sound almost suicidal, but make more sense in context of the device's ability to subsidise itself through targeted advertising to which users can choose to sign up. However, despite trialling the Smart Adds system with 52 advertisers earlier this year, the company isn't able to confirm take-up of the new system. It's the perfect illustration of Gizmondo's current situation - an ambitious promise backed up by nothing more concrete than another ambitious promise. [br][br]However, if Gizmondo's exuberant confidence is justified, and if Tiger Telematics' pockets are deep enough to sustain the company until these promises become reality, then the new handheld war might yet - almost unbelievably - become a three-way battle.