Flip the Switch

So, okay. Can I spoil the McRib magic for you? I’m going to need to if we’re going to talk about Nintendo. We cool? Duck out if we’re not cool. This is your official warning that there will be spoilers for the McDonald’s classic sandwich “The McRib.”

Alright, all the cowards have left- perfect. Let’s talk. So, the McDonald’s classic pressed pork sandwich, slathered in delectable barbecue sauce, that reappears unpredictably throughout the year. There are a couple of errors in that sentence, but the relevant one is this- the reemergence of the McRib is an entirely predictable affair. The return of Our Pickled Lord is always preceded by especially low pork prices in the marketplace. In other words, McDonald’s is waiting for pork prices to drop below a certain point, in order to maximize profits on this special item.

Pork prices are like oil prices- they rise and fall over time. Technology prices, however, nearly always fall, fall, and fall with time. As months and years pass, we discover cheaper ways to make existing technologies, and given parts get cheaper (with exceptions when something becomes especially old, or supply is limited). This is why I say the Nintendo Switch is akin to the McRib- much of how it was revealed can be explained by opportunism in regards to the price of its parts.

Let’s go over a few key things we know about how Nintendo does business. First, they are the only console maker still doggedly determined to sell their console at a profit. Sony and Microsoft are willing to take a loss to get the machine in your house, but Nintendo will compromise whatever’s necessary to ship a profitable machine. This is precisely why the 3DS and Wii U have used resistive touch screens well after the market at large had moved on to the superior capacitive touch screens used in smartphones and tablets. And secondly, they often wait until products are very far in development to talk about them- especially lately. They seem extremely wary of promising what they cannot deliver, so they are very careful about offering too many details on products very far down the road.

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Now let’s look at the announcement of the Nintendo Switch, which was until that point known as the “NX.” Its announcement was far later than industry analysts expected, and was very sudden- Nintendo announced one afternoon that the unveiling would happen the next morning, with little fanfare, and certainly no press conference for system specs, a launch lineup, press questions, or anything like that. And the only information provided came by way of a video… that notably didn’t demonstrate any touchscreen functionality, but the product shown was of a form factor that would forbid the use of a resistance touchscreen. The device demoed either has a capacitive touchscreen, as rumor suggests, or… no touchscreen at all.

It’s time to put all this together and see what it tells us. Nintendo waited until surprisingly late in the development of the Switch to unveil it to the public. They don’t like to sell hardware at a loss, and have in the past chosen resistance touchscreens over capacitive touchscreens in an effort to control costs. That was then, and this is now… and technology just gets cheaper with time, capacitive touchscreens included. And lastly, Nintendo is extremely wary of making promises it can’t keep, these days. So is it possible that the reason the announcement was so late, and so sudden, was because Nintendo was waiting for the market to offer capacitive touchscreens at a price they found acceptable?

It would explain the suddenness of the reveal- likely they wanted to announce the Switch sooner, but had to wait until they were positive that hardware for the final product was “solved.” It would also explain the vagueness of the video- in all likelihood it was recorded ages ago, back when the presence of touch was still up in the air, and they didn’t want to include footage of a feature that they weren’t sure they would actually support in the final product.

Where does that leave us? A knee jerk reaction would be to say that it must have touch, because they pulled the trigger with the trailer… but it’s also possible that Nintendo simply crossed a threshold, and decided they couldn’t wait any longer, and would have to proceed without touchscreens on the Switch. I want to believe that they’ll support touch on the Switch with capacitive touch- if nothing else, the lack of support for Mario Maker without it would be a devastating blow. But all we can really do is wait and see- sooner or later, Nintendo will open up again, and explain what the machine includes. I doubt they’ll ever tell us the story of how it came to be, though. That’s another way it’s like the McRib- you really don’t wanna see the sausage being made.