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Chinese PC maker Lenovo enters the home video game console fray with Ebox

The Chinese have all but officially relented on their officially strict (but realistically lax) ban on home video-game console imports by doing what they do best — swiping all the best ideas and making their own.

Last week, China's Lenovo, the fourth-largest global PC maker, announced it would be introducing a console aimed at Chinese gamers, complete with motion controls and downloadable software. If that doesn't already sound familiar, try the name: The Ebox.

In an attempt to capitalize on the nation's burgeoning middle class, Lenovo spun off about 40 software engineers into a company called eedoo to develop and market the Ebox, which is set to bow in China in November. But like Chery automobiles and Nokir mobile phones, the unabashed rip-off of Japanese and American technology is far from embarrassing for the company — in fact, it's the highlight of the entire product line.

"We are the world's second company to produce a controller-free game console, behind only Microsoft," eedoo president Jack Luo told China Daily. "Our product is designed for family entertainment. Ebox may not have exquisite game graphics, or extensive violence, but it can inspire family members to get off the couch and get some exercise."

That sounds suspiciously familar to Nintendo's pitch for the Wii a half-dozen years ago. Maybe the age of that technology explains why the target of comparison is Microsoft's upcoming motion-controlled peripheral, Kinect, which is coming to North America on Nov. 4. Lenovo promises that like Kinect, there will be no need for controllers to make games work, unlike the Wii or Sony's Move for Playstation 3.

Of course, the reason Lenovo wants to sell the Ebox to the Chinese is because the Big Three have been banned from importing consoles to the country since 2000, after the government determined video games are a detriment to children's mental and physical development. There are knockoffs, sure — devices like the Vii, POPstation and PolyStation 3 are advertised across China — but there's nothing a Chinese company could market as its very own. That's surely a big deal to a modernizing nation developing its opinion of itself, despite the official frowning.

"We understand Chinese culture and customers better than our competitors. We still hold advantages in terms of Chinese game content, sales channels and customer service," Luo said.

But at what cost comes this electronic ego stroke? Lenovo and eedoo predict as many as 120 million families are potential buyers, although Boston Consulting Group says a retail price of 3,000 yuan (about $440) puts Ebox in the reach of about 19 million.

That doesn't faze eedoo: They say the price likely will be higher than a Wii, but lower than the current Xbox 360 retail of $299 (Kinect's base price will be $150, and a Move bundle will run about $100 on Sept. 19). That's fairly comparable for a system boasting 30 launch titles and 16 global third-party developers signed on to make content. Plus, a price in that range would still bring in an estimated 29 million families, although Luo says the company only expects sales of 1 million in the first couple of years. That's without even discussing plans to expand into the rest of Asia.

But then, among a population of 1.3 billion Chinese, even one-tenth of 1 percent is doing pretty well.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Chinese PC maker Lenovo enters the home video game console fray with Ebox 09/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 8:56pm]

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