In many respects, the battle to achieve smartphone supremacy can be likened to a game of chess.
There tend to be two main protagonists – Android and iOS, Google Assistant and Siri, etc.
A battle of moves and counter-moves ensues, as both sides plan several steps ahead to try and outwit their competitor.
Now there’s a new duel – but this time, the battle is being fought in the clouds. And appropriately, it involves gaming.
Introducing xCloud and Stadia
On one side, there’s xCloud – Microsoft’s attempt to capitalise on its hugely successful Xbox platform by developing a related cloud gaming service.
On the other side is Google Stadia.
Google has little history of gaming beyond the occasional interactive game on its homepage, but it wants a slice of the action (and adventure).
Both Microsoft and Google have developed prototypes and scaled them up in preparation for launch.
Neither is yet on the market, but xCloud and Stadia were both on display at this year’s E3 video game conference.
Both rely on high-speed internet connectivity to host games on remote servers and pipe them to user devices, like the app-based smartphone games already familiar to millions of people.
However, xCloud and Stadia are entire gaming ecosystems, more reminiscent of the Steam platform than a standalone game which is downloaded, played and potentially uninstalled.
Even though both platforms are attempting to forge a new gaming path, in many respects, the differences between them are black and white.
Same. But different
Microsoft chose to showcase established Xbox titles like Forza Horizon on xCloud, which suggests it sees xCloud primarily as a mobile accompaniment to Xbox Live.
It’s at a far less developed stage than its Google rival, so there are no details of pricing, packaging or how xCloud could be cast from a smartphone to a TV – or back to an Xbox.
Google’s greater preparation time has ensured compatibility with its own Chromecast dongles and Pixel devices, as well as displaying through Chrome browsers.
Google has developed a dedicated Stadia controller which works over WiFi, though USB controllers are also an option – including, ironically, Microsoft’s Xbox One handset.
A subscription platform will launch in November, and a free tier arrives next year. Games can be bundled in with a subscription or bought independently, streaming at 4K resolution.
Plus, YouTube will offer seamless links from game ads into the titles themselves, with live streaming of other people’s gameplay and even the opportunity to join in yourself.
This might suggest Stadia is in pole position to succeed in the latest battle for smartphone supremacy. Yet Microsoft does have some key advantages.
Its Azure cloud platform is already well established, capable of providing seamless streaming to innumerable devices simultaneously.
Xbox compatibility would enable gamers to transfer their console games to their phone while out and about, for optimal accessibility.
The iconic Xbox controller pairs to xCloud via Bluetooth, with a touchscreen interface for fully portable gaming.
Microsoft also has a far more established pedigree in terms of developing and releasing successful titles, whereas Google needs to evolve its developer relationships from scratch.
Too early to judge?
With so many question marks hanging over both titles, choosing a superior platform is currently impossible.
Anyone already plugged into the Xbox ecosystem is likely to embrace the flexibility offered by xCloud, though Sony PlayStation fans may avoid it on principle.
The rest of us will have a tougher choice. Google’s ability to attract quality games will ultimately determine whether Stadia becomes a viable alternative to xCloud.
Google has already established relationships with blue-chip games developers. Games available at launch will include the latest Mortal Kombat, Rage and Destiny titles.
Google has also launched its own in-house Stadia Games and Entertainment division, while Microsoft has been hoovering up smaller games companies in recent years.
And while cynical observers have questioned whether the world truly needs cloud gaming, there’s clearly potential for both xCloud and Stadia to flourish during the next decade.