In a meticulously researched 11,000 word article, Dean Takahashi of Venture Beat has written about the chronological series of events that led to the hardware failures faced by the Xbox 360. Often called the “Red Ring of Death”, it is a condition that describes when three flashing red lights light up the front of an Xbox 360 indicating hardware failure.
The article describes how the business need to be first to market influenced all decisions resulting in compromised hardware quality. Early warnings were ignored as Microsoft was determined to launch their console first. According to Takahashi, Microsoft’s engineers started working on the Xbox 360 at least a year after Sony’s engineers began work on the PlayStation 3, yet Microsoft wound up shipping a year ahead of Sony. Although we were repeatedly assured all was fine it was thanks to gamers and the media Microsoft was dragged kicking and screaming in to admitting there was a problem.
Takahashi reports in August 2005 during the early stages of the Xbox 360’s development warnings were already being raised but were ignored. An engineer raised his hand and said, “Stop. You have to shut down the line.” This wasn’t just a brief moment. The engineer spoke up repeatedly. According to the article that engineer, who remains anonymous, had deep experience in manufacturing. When production results were really off kilter, stopping a line and tracing a problem back to its roots was the answer. Managers and executives, higher-ranking engineers ignored the warnings and decided to go forward. At the time, 68 out of every 100 Xbox 360s made were not working. Worse still, when the first batch of the system's three-core CPUs rolled off the line, only 16 percent worked.
Microsoft mandated the Xbox 360 had to be smaller, if only to fit in the smaller homes in Japan, a key target market. There was a constant tug of war between the industrial designers, who wanted something small and the engineers, who wanted to pack a lot of performance into the Xbox 360. The more powerful the system was, the bigger the box had to be to provide air flow for heat-sensitive components. Incremental changes to a finalized design appear to have caused many problems. According to the article, Microsoft decided late to add a hard disk drive. They also came up late with a plan to add wireless controllers. Many of these decisions resulted in reduced airflow causing the overheating that caused so many Xbox 360s to fail.
On November 22, 2005 the Xbox 360 launched and the consoles began to fail immediately. In July of 2007, Microsoft publicly admitted there was a problem and took a corresponding financial hit of more than $1 billion to fix it. Prior to that acknowledgement, Takahashi reports that Microsoft had taken returns on 1.2 million of the roughly 11.6 million shipped Xbox 360s.
According to Takahashi, there was no single reason for the failures. Many of the problems could be blamed on the ATI graphics chip, which could overheat so much it warped the motherboard. This put stress on bad solder joints, causing them to fail early in the machine’s life. Sometimes the heat sinks on top of the GPU were put on the wrong way, resulting in heat problems. Finally, games would sometimes crash because of sub-par memory.
The implications of the “Red Ring of Death” issue are being felt to this day. In Takahashi’s own words:
The Xbox 360’s defect problem will go down as one of the worst snafus in consumer electronics history.
Microsoft argues being first to market was worth the compromises. Microsoft’s top game executive, Robbie Bach, president of the Entertainment & Devices group, said at a dinner in July that Microsoft’s own research shows that gamers have largely forgiven the company for defective Xbox 360s. Bach also said in July 2008, “It has given us a leg up in a number of places that are super important. It has given us a leg up with game developers. It has given us a leg up from an economics perspective. It helped us expand Xbox Live quickly.”
What Microsoft sacrificed was the good will of consumers, who are critical for establishing a lasting platform. It remains to be seen whether the benefits of launching the Xbox 360 first will exceed the consequences of releasing a faulty product.