Apple's Game Center will catapult iPhone into video gaming big leagues

On Thursday, Apple unveiled a major update to the iPhone OS which is expected to reach iPhone 3G/3G S and second- and third-generation iPod users sometime this summer, and iPad users in the fall. While the banner feature of this release is its multitasking capability, the announcement that Apple will open a Web-based gaming network akin to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network has potential to be the biggest coup.

Game Center lets users invite friends to play games, start multiplayer games through matchmaking, track achievements, and compare their high scores on a Web-based game network. This is a huge addition to the iPhone ecosystem which puts it on par with the two major home consoles, and actually catapults it past both Nintendo's Wii and its DS.

Currently, Nintendo offers Web-based gameplay on a title-by-title basis for its systems, but it has no unified service with gamer identities, records, or social invitations where users can form a community.

In a recent interview, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime dismissed iPhone OS as a viable gaming ecosystem. Too many users were downloading free games and had only low engagement levels, he argued.

"If our games represent a range between snacks of entertainment and full meals, depending on the type of game, theirs aren't even a mouthful, in terms of the gaming experience you get," Fils-Aime said.

But the addition of an online gaming service has the potential to turn the "mouthful" of iPhone OS gaming into something much more satisfying.

Unfortunately, information about the upcoming service is still scarce. Apple's iPhone developer site says it will be available "later this year," but it does not say whether it will be a subscription service like Xbox Live, nor does it say how users will interact with it.

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