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Microsoft

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In a fit of irony, it’s Microsoft’s pony that is the last to cross the finish line in next generation’s console race.

Despite the Xbox 360’s early 2005 arrival in the face of the PlayStation 3 and the Wii, the announcement of the console’s successor, codenamed “Durango,” is one that has been shrouded in relative mystery… until now.

Microsoft confirmed Wednesday that the company will reveal its new console next month, just as rumors had been indicating for the past several weeks.

The event, titled “A New Generation Revealed,” is slated for Tuesday, May 21 at 12 p.m. at Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington.

It’ll also be streamed globally on Xbox.com and Xbox Live and will also air on Spike TV.

The rumor mill surrounding the capabilities of the next-generation Xbox (seriously, please don’t call it the Xbox 720) has been churning since word leaked of its existence.

Allegedly, it will require some new, mandatory version of Kinect, the revolutionary (if unrealized) motion-sensing device that turned heads a few years ago at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

Rumors also suggest that the console will work as a TV set-top box to replace consumers’ cable boxes, although exactly how this will be accomplished is largely unclear.

But far and away, the most controversial rumor surrounding the Durango is whether it will require a constant online connection to start games.

The rumor gained even more traction when gaming blog Kotaku received in-depth information from two anonymous sources about the always-online system.  According to the sources, neither games nor apps can be started without an Internet connection, and a game or app will be suspended after three minutes of an interrupted connection.

Clearly, with more than 30 percent of Xbox 360 users having never connected their consoles to the Internet as of early 2012, this poses something of a problem.

However, Microsoft has been deathly quiet concerning the controversial always-online requirement—except for Adam Orth, former creative director at Microsoft’s Xbox division.

Former is appropriate here because Orth no longer works with Microsoft due to a series of ill-advised tweets he made earlier this month.

“Sorry, I don’t get the drama around having an ‘always on’ console,” Orth said.

“Every device now is ‘always on.’ That’s the world we live in.  #dealwithit”

Following the impending Internet implosion, Orth’s termination and Microsoft’s apology, the entire affair was swept under the rug.

Except it wasn’t.

Microsoft is just about the only one who isn’t talking about the fiasco on gaming blogs and message boards across the Internet.  It would seem that the company’s silence in this situation is just as damaging as its confirmation in the eyes of several consumers.

Even worse is Sony’s dismissal of enforcing such a policy with the PlayStation 4.

For these reasons, Microsoft’s Durango reveal next month is very likely the most critical in the company’s history.

Consumers need a clear answer about the always-on policy, whether Kinect will be a mandatory part of the next-generation experience and—most importantly of all—a lineup of great games.

While “Halo” and “Gears of War” are great franchises, it’s simply not going to be enough in the face of Sony and Nintendo’s ever-growing stable of first-party exclusives.

When May 21 comes, let’s all hope that the company does everything it can to stop the bleeding and make this next generation console race one worth watching.