Marketing stunt theory
Ah, conspiracy theories, you have to love them. This one goes as such, Bill in Microsoft land wanted to make sure the 360 sold out really fast, thus ensuring high levels of free press. Possible? Sure, after all the viral marketing and strange ads, I wouldn’t put it past the Xbox spin team. Probable? I’m inclined to dismiss this one, as discussed below there is a more likely beast behind this.
Actual problem theory
Microsoft clearly wants to get a lot of 360s into the hands of gamers ASAP. To take advantage of their head start on the PS3 they need to. The Dreamcast had a similar jump on the PS2 but failed miserably to capitalize (fantastic console though, clearly served as the model for the first Xbox). So, if Microsoft wants to sell enough 360s to sink Sony headquarters into the Pacific, why the shortages? Well, maybe they’re having trouble making them. This is a pretty fancy bit of kit after all.
The Xbox 360 contains a number of chips that could be the stumbling block, chief suspects are the CPU from IBM and the graphics chip from ATi. Both are large chips by current mass production standards and both companies have had big problems in the past delivering on their promises. This is my field and while I cannot talk numbers, I can tell you that the yield on chips like these (percentage of chips manufactured that actually work) is not pretty. The yields are likely less than 50%, particularly on the IBM part due to its high clock speed and if there were any problems with the parts or process, this could be a whole lot worse.
Assembly could also be an issue. The assembly for the 360 has been farmed out to two companies, Flextronics and Winstron. With roughly 1700 parts and a tight thermal design, maybe one of these two plants isn’t up to speed yet.
The other potential cause of the shortage relates to the reports of Xbox crashes and overheating. If one of Microsoft’s sub-contractors (say one of the firms making the power supplies) dropped the ball, it could be cutting Big Evil’s ability to produce machines by a ton. Massive recalls look bad after all.
So that’s my thought. Microsoft isn’t being evil (this time), just overly ambitious with the specifications. The production issues will get hammered out fairly quickly (they are making quite of few of these things) and life will be good again (unless you’re Sony).
The current rumor is that a shipment of 360s is due within days and I’m going to have one if it kills me. I’ve secretly recruited an insider, a man who unpacks the truck at a local big-box store. We’ve planted a discrete communications device one him (aka cell phone) for use in the case that he see signs of 360s. The plan is to camp at the first sitting and grab a premium edition if at all possible. Wish me luck people; this mission could very well cost me my life (social life mind you).