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  (Source: Kristopher Kubicki)
Dean Takahashi delves in to the causes of the Red Ring of Death

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.

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RE: ATI the blame ... not likely.
By robinthakur on 9/9/2008 6:38:59 AM , Rating: 3
Actually, your lengthy string of questions can be summed up in one ignorant statement (Assuming you don't work for Microsoft)

"I am happy as a consumer to be lied to and sold a knowingly defective product in good faith and am well aware that in buying said defective console, I am helping Microsoft achieve its stated business aims and build a market share, and that's just fine."

The whole sordid incident smacks of a cynicism and big-business mentality which was pleasantly lacking in the consoles industry before Microsoft got involved. Even the very act of rushing the Xbox 360 to market artificially accelerated the obsolescence of the PS2 and Gamecube, not to mention killing the original Xbox stone dead and harmed the whole industry. Can you imagine Nintendo behaving in this way? Piont of fact, can you imagine ANY other industry allowing this to happen?

As a consumer and not a Microsoft shareholder/employee, I'm outraged, frankly, that a respectable company like Microsoft could behave in such away and that at some point a manager or somebody in a position of authority didn't say "Forget building a market/mind share. If this failure rate is duplicated in the home it will do active damage to our market share and future prospects."

Unfortunately nobody did, and we have the present crazy situation, unprecedented on consoles, where now its even seen as acceptable to release known defective hardware onto the market in the full knowledge that the faithful masses such as yourself will be quite willing to buy another, should it break out of warranty. Nobody outside of Microsoft knows whether the problem has been fixed categorically. It is very regrettable that consumers have continued buying the Xbox360 as it sends the message that quality control and reliability are unimportant in a product with a 5-7 year lifespan. I'm not bothered about Microsoft's profitability on the Xbox or the individual weak 'justifications' for why their design was deficient, I just know that as consumers we have been roundly mistreated. If they aren't successful in gaming, and can't turn a profit, they should just get out of the market.

RE: ATI the blame ... not likely.
By jojo29 on 9/9/2008 10:53:09 AM , Rating: 2
The whole sordid incident smacks of a cynicism and big-business mentality which was pleasantly lacking in the consoles industry before Microsoft got involved.

This can be anymore truthful. Ever since Microsoft entered the Gaming Industry, it has brought the big-business corporate mentality MS is known for, and that is not a good thing. The thing is, Microsoft has the money throw around, and people hate to see people throw their money around instead of earn their way into the industry.

Now the sad thing is, gaming companies are by no means the most profitable and every game that is developed is a huge risk. MS has money to throw around, maybe not for an exclusive, but for a me too "multi-platform" title, and of course the publishers/developers are all for it. Square-Enix was the last hope, and they sold their company's soul..Now, remember, S-E left Nintendo for a MEDIUM ( CD ) which they felt would show off their game better. This time around, it stinks of pure greed.

I sense a great change in the gaming industry is coming. But not what you would expect. I'm by no means an expert, but from how i've seen the industry grow ( granted ive only been gaming since Sega Master System/Nintendo Entertainment System days, missed out on Atari's Age ) it was growing awesome, innovation was in full gear, then the Microsoft entered, i dont mind a 3rd console, its just that Microsoft business practices can only hurt the industry. And to my point. I feel that a market crash like in the 80s or something similiar is coming, but in terms of innovation.

I have hope for the industry. I feel that in gaming creativity and innovation is king, and right now, Playstation 3 is the place to go for that first and foremost.

"Spreading the rumors, it's very easy because the people who write about Apple want that story, and you can claim its credible because you spoke to someone at Apple." -- Investment guru Jim Cramer

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