Switch vs Wikipad

As I've gotten older I've noticed that I'm becoming increasingly forgetful, and I was reminded of this sad fact of life recently thanks to Blake J. Harris' The History of the Future, a book I've been lucky enough to have been sent an advance copy of to flick through. While the book – billed as the sequel to the brilliant Console Wars – is primarily concerned with the evolution of VR firm Oculus and its relationship with Facebook, it briefly mentions the Wikipad – a device which, in 2019, feels like it was way ahead of its time.

In case you missed it (and don't feel bad, because plenty of other people did because it sold so poorly), the Wikipad was an Android tablet which came with a bolt-on gaming interface. The objective was simple: to offer consumers the best of Android-based gaming and marry it with a proper, physical interface that would overcome all of the shortcomings of touch-based control. Flicking through Harris' book, it's hard not to become enamoured with the concept; the team behind it was clearly talented and passionate (some of the members would later co-found Oculus) and the Wikipad was even demoed with a glasses-free 3D screen not entirely unlike the one on the Nintendo 3DS. To sweeten the deal, in 2012 it was announced that cloud gaming firm Gaikai – co-founded by Dave Perry of Shiny Entertainment fame – would be integrating its services with the Wikipad.

However, even before it was released, the Wikipad seemed doomed to failure. It had already missed its initial 2011 launch date by the time it was shown off at CES in 2012, and when it eventually limped to market in 2013, it had been outpaced by the Nvidia Shield handheld, which was running a more advanced version of the Tegra chipset and had built-in gaming controls as standard. The much-hyped Gaikai integration also came to nothing, as the company was acquired by Sony two months after confirming its support for the Wikipad. OnLive support was drafted in as a replacement in 2014, but it wasn't enough to save the product, nor was the 'glowing' recommendation of the late, great Stan Lee.

Wikipad – the company, not the device – decided to instead focus on creating a detachable gaming controller for smartphones and would later rebrand as Gamevice (a name which will be familiar to Nintendo fans, for reasons we'll talk about in a bit).

There are two other things that, in 2019, I find remarkable about the Wikipad. The first is that having read about it in Harris' book, I was gripped by how cool it sounded, totally oblivious to the fact that in 2013, I actually reviewed the damn thing for Eurogamer, one of our sister sites. "The Wikipad certainly has its heart in the right place," were some of the words I wrote (and subsequently clean forgot about). "But ultimately there are too many negatives present to make it a worthwhile purchase. The gaming interface makes it bulky, it lacks graphical power, it ships with a version of Android which is over a year old and the price is simply too high." For a device to sound so cool on paper but be so utterly forgettable in reality is quite an achievement.

The second notable thing is that the Wikipad, when viewed with the benefit of hindsight, feels like some kind of long-long prototype of the Switch (something I no doubt would have commented on following the Switch's first reveal, had I remembered that the Wikipad was something that exists). It's a tablet-like device with a touchscreen that is powered by Nvidia hardware, and it comes with a detachable gaming interface (albeit one which doesn't break out into two different controllers, like the Joy-Con). There's even TV-out capability, thanks to the included HDMI-out socket. It's a dead-ringer for Nintendo's console, but despite reviewing the Wikipad all those years ago, I never made the connection when Switch was launched. (Perhaps it's time to retire?)

Then again, I shouldn't be so hard on myself – there's a good reason that nobody remembers the Wikipad: it was terrible. Unlike the Switch, which is an elegant execution of the same core concept, the Wikipad totally failed to fulfil its promise. Performance was sketchy even for an Android-based piece of hardware, and the bolt-on gaming interface left much to be desired, sporting cheap-feeling buttons and flimsy analogue sticks. Most important of all, the Wikipad wasn't supported by a range of must-have games and, robbed at the last minute of the planned Gaikai connectivity, it lacked the USP which could have saved it. The glasses-free 3D version also fell by the wayside, and – finally – the price was simply too high for an Android tablet with a plastic bolt-on gamepad.

In fact, the only reason the Wikipad – and perhaps Gamevice – remain in anyone's memory is due to the repeated legal action the company has undertaken against Nintendo over the past few years. In August 2017, Gamevice (which, unlike your humble scribe, remembered Wikipad existed) sued Nintendo for violating its Wikipad patents with the Nintendo Switch, but would voluntarily drop the lawsuit two months later. Then, in the middle of last year, Gamevice renewed its claim, stating that Switch violated its patents on 'attachable handheld gamepads'.

At the time the case went public, the United States International Trade Commission said it would issue its verdict in around 45 days; we've heard nothing since, which would suggest Gamevice's attempt to prevent Switch being sold in North America has failed. For its part, the company appears to be doing relatively well, its business no doubt buoyed by the recent popularity of Fortnite (which now comes with full support for the Gamevice on iOS and Android). But it's remarkable to think that almost a decade ago, Wikipad was effectively chasing the same goal that Nintendo would aim for in 2017 when it launched the Switch, yet for a wide range of reasons, it fell way short and is now so utterly inconsequential that I'd clean forgotten it even existed. Still, those promotional videos sure are something.