When I was a kid, consoles were typified by their ease of use - plug in + tune the TV = play = joy. It was always easy to understand the mass market appeal of such simplicity. From the 2600 to the PS2 the paradigm of plug-in-and-play was persistent. And then things began to change...
Microsoft really shook things up when they attached a mass storage device and online capability to the Xbox as standard. When this was announced many developers that I knew had one response in two different tones of voice: "Now console games can be patched!"
On the one hand this meant that console development could be slightly less stressful, on the other hand we all knew that it was the "it just works" nature of console games that made them so much more popular than PC games. Thankfully, Microsoft didn't allow us to patch, and things carried on as normal for a while.
However, anyone who owns a PS3 or 360 will know that "pick up and play" isn't always the case anymore. I worked with a tester who had the misfortune of owning an Xbox 360 without an internet connection at home. When he bought BioShock he couldn't play it until he brought the console to work to grab the requisite update. Yes, he could have just brought the hard drive, but that didn't occur to him until after the event. Your PlayStation 3 is also a mighty device but it likes to keep you waiting - "Can I just play Mr Sony?" No, you can't, gulp down your download first.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the practice of system updates but it unquestionably hampers the breadth of appeal of these systems in the marketplace. These delays to play are a blocker to enjoyment and create an impression of complexity in the simple world of consoles. Even though this impression is wrong and the consoles are really very easy to use, the damage is done and those mass market consumers simply look for some other way to spend their money and minutes.
Of all the many things that a mass market consumer can turn their attention to, the web is probably the cleverest. Of course, one of the things that you can do on the web is play games, and a lot of people do play games on the web, tens of millions in fact. The great advantage of these games is that all you need is a web browser. Occasionally you have to update Flash or Java but not very often.
And these games can be played on any computer you can get my hands on - in the library, at work (during lunch, of course), at home, even at your parents' house when you visit them. I'm ashamed to say that I once played Urban Dead for ten minutes when I was at a friend's house, on his laptop, when I was meant to be looking up a menu for a restaurant. These are coffee break games in terms of intended time investment, it just happens that the coffee break is sometimes longer than expected.
It would seem that the web has become the new standard in insta-play gaming of the kind that we used to turn to consoles for, in that you can fire up a browser and be playing almost instantly. Although, the web might actually be better than anything we've had before. One of the problems that consoles have always had is that they hog the focus of every living room, stealing the television away from other activities.
This can be easily remedied with a second TV in the bedroom, but that takes the console away from the living room and sidelines it as a family entertainment option. But the web can be accessed through laptops and even smart phones, devices with their own screens that are portable, bringing them back into the living room without stealing the attention hungry TV's thunder.
So we want devices that are good for browsing the net then? Some people didn't seem to think so in January: If you’d told me a few years ago that the announcement of a completely portable touchscreen computer as compact as a magazine would be greeted by dismissive groans and outright mockery I would have questioned your sanity with relatively strong words. Well, the iPad did get that reception from some but it's here now and apart from the fact that it doesn't run Flash, which sickeningly discriminates against Kongregate, it strikes me as a perfect web browsing device, which in turn makes it a perfect device for playing web games.
Will it change the nature of gaming? I don't know, but the greatest joy in gaming for me has always been a social context, where the people I'm playing against are close enough to curse or hit. The iPad fits nicely in the social space of the living room, just like board games do, and like its little brother it's certainly worth showing off, which I reckon makes it the very first commercially available coffee table computer.