Microsoft's Mobile Play

Cloud gaming validates phone controllers

I believe the future of product design is simultaneously digital and physical. This is why Microsoft’s approach to the next generation of gaming fascinates me.

Since its introduction, fans of the Xbox have yearned for a portable console like the Nintendo Switch, or Sony’s slightly less popular PSP and Vita.

Microsoft is the only major player to never make a portable console.

Microsoft’s investment in cloud gaming makes it clear that they never had any intention of making such a device. Why should they, when your phone can serve just as well.

Instead of designing proprietary hardware, transform people's mobile devices into gaming machines with software.

Game streaming via GamePass Cloud Gaming (Beta).

Not only is this more efficient. It means the price of admission just went down to the cost of a Netflix subscription and can be distributed just as easily.

5G data speeds make cloud gaming a legitimate option. Microsoft can stream a game - rendered in a server farm somewhere - to your phone with reasonably low latency. But how do you play it?

The natural answer is to connect an Xbox wireless controller. There are various clips and stands to attach your phone.

If you have no controller handy, Microsoft is working on touch controls, but every real gamer knows a touchscreen is no controller. Touchscreens can do many things, but ergonomics and precise tactile feedback are not among them.  

The third solution is to build a controller for your phone. Enter Backbone. It's a clever name for a product we’ve seen before, but now it has a reason to exist.

The concept is simple: two halves of a controller attached to a frame that accommodates a smartphone.

Backbone + iPhone
Backbone product renderings

The result looks a lot like a Nintendo Switch, but 1/3 the price.

Similar products have been around for years, but with only standard iOS games to play, compatibility made them more or less useless. With access to the hundreds of titles available on Xbox GamePass, that changes.

It helps that the Backbone seems genuinely well designed. The grips are sculpted (luxurious compared to a Joy-Con) and equipped with every trigger, bumper, stick, and pad found on a standard Xbox controller... almost like they knew this was coming. Microsoft officially recommended the competing Razer Kishi, but so far people seem to prefer the Backbone.

Reviewers have gotten their hands on it and are impressed with the build quality, tactility, and seamless software integration.  Little details like molded slots that redirect phone speaker audio towards you and an integrated lightning connector to draw power make the Backbone stand out from the competition. There's a lightning cable passthrough so you can charge your phone while playing and "gasp" a 3.5mm headphone jack. You still have to remove your phone case for it to fit though.

Backbone isn’t just a controller. It pairs with an app launcher for navigating compatible games on your device, communicating with friends, and capturing/sharing content. In short, it gives your phone a console UI, thus completing the circle and making your phone feel like a real handheld.

Backbone in-use

Here’s what reviewers are saying:

“It works seamlessly and the whole system feels very polished for the launch of a company’s first product.”

- Lori Grunin, CNET

“This iPhone controller and its app are so immersive and well designed, I forgot I was playing on my phone.”

- Louryn Strampe, Wired

"The hardware alone might make it worth the purchase, but the software is what really makes it unique. The One doesn’t require its companion app to work with any iOS game that supports a controller, but using the app turns your iPhone into a game console of sorts."

- Cameron Faulkner, The Verge

“Many companies have tried to marry mobile gaming with the comfortable ergonomics of a game controller, with middling results. But a company called Backbone thinks it’s cracked the code — and having played with their gaming controller myself, I agree.”

- Rachel Kaser, The Next Web

I’m not a GamePass subscriber yet, but once 5G is consistently available, this seems like the accessory to get. Share this article. Maybe they’ll send me one to test!

*Backbone is designed with an integrated lightning charger, rendering it incompatible with Android devices. The irony is iOS currently doesn't support Xbox GamePass.

Thanks for reading,


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