Switched On: What of the Wii-buked?

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Nintendo has been on an Apple-like hit parade since the disappointing market performance of the GameCube. The DS and DS Lite handily staved off highly touted competition from Sony. The PSP may have appealed to a different, if for now narrower, demographic, but units are units, and there's no escaping them when you're marketing a platform.

The launch of the Wii has been nothing but magic mushrooms from the hype around the controller to the E3 reception to late-night Wii Tennis face-offs between Conan and Serena Williams. Check out this apologetic fan comment on Amazon's product page: "Graphics might not be high definition, but it looks very close to the Xbox 360 and PS3 when not running in HD mode. And definitively better than the original Xbox and PS2." Better than the Xbox and PS2, eh? That's setting the sensor bar pretty low for a system that shipped six years after the PS2.

Yet, it's no suprise that the Wii has been highly sought. I thought it was the best consumer technology product of 2006. The Nintendo team has executed almost flawlessly, but the company has brushed aside criticisms regarding product shortages without so much as a flick from a Wiimote. Commenting earlier this month on the mayhem surrounding Sony's PlayStation 3's product launch shortages, Nintendo of America vice president of marketing and corporate affairs Perrin Kaplan noted that "we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system. So there's one sign of the different approaches between our two companies."

In a way it was a sign of different approaches by Sony and Nintendo, but, it was also a sign of the differences between the two user bases, the large pricing gap between the two systems and attendant markup potential on eBay, and the perceived severity of shortages that each had. And on the latter front, Sony -- perhaps to its detriment -- simply did a better job of preparing the public than Nintendo. Kaplan continued, "I think we were just really prepared. Years of experience doing this ensured that we would have a very good launch." Yet Wiis were not only at least as hard to find as PS3s during the holiday for anyone who didn't stand on line, but remain so when compared to their larger, more expensive competitor, especially without onerous bundles.

Earlier today, for example, both Circuit City's and Best Buy's sites had the 60GB PS3 in stock for their retail price according to's PS3 Locator. In contrast, the cheapest price that can be found for a Wii today according to the site's Wii Locator is $400 -- $150 above the retail price. Speaking of forced product purchases, the worst Wii wacker was -- surprise -- Wal-Mart's site, requiring seven game purchases for a $628 bundle. But at least it offered some choice in which games are included. The PS3 was listed in six online stores whereas the Wii was only in three online stores. Having monitored the site and others like it for a few weeks, this has been a pretty common situation.

As late as September, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Amie was quoted as saying that Wii would bring "gaming back to the masses." Among other factors he noted we would "see that in the number of units we plan to make available this year." On the eve of the Wii's launch, though, reality had caught up in a GameSpot interview:

"Planes, trains, and automobiles, you name it, are being employed to maximize the availability, but it's going to be tight. So, if I'm a consumer, I'm going to want to keep calling and going to all of the likely suspects--my EB and GameStop stores, my Best Buy, my Circuit City, my Target, my Wal-Mart, everywhere--because they're all going to have it at some point in time. But when they're in, they're going to be gone immediately."

That's certainly been a more accurate characterization and everyone is surely thankful that cooler heads have prevailed in keeping the peace amidst the shortages. Yet it shouldn't be the case three months after launch from a "really prepared" team unless Sony and Microsoft were equally as prepared for their most recent home console launches.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at