Marrying a PlayStation with a Phone has never made more sense - but remains a tough proposition
There is a fairly popular line of gossip within the games business which suggests that the relationship between Sony Computer Entertainment and Sony Ericsson is not entirely a happy one. It's nothing but rumour, of course, and is rarely substantiated by any practical examples of this allegedly frosty relationship, but proponents of the theory do have one piece of evidence to fall back upon. If, they argue, the two divisions are truly seeing eye to eye, where on earth is the PSP Phone?
In this regard, the conspiracy theorists who suggest a rift within Sony have a point. The PSP technology has been linked to various mobile phone implementations over the years, but none have ever surfaced as actual products. It's a very obvious link-up, especially in the wake of Sony's creation of a digital distribution service for the platform. The very fact of its non-appearance does tend to imply that something is amiss.
To fall back again on industry scuttlebutt, it's widely held that the "something amiss" is that Sony Computer Entertainment has never been satisfied with the hardware Sony Ericsson has delivered - never content that the devices being designed lived up to the PlayStation branding.
That makes this week's leak of some pretty credible shots of a prototype PSP Phone extremely interesting. Interesting with a pinch of salt, of course - there remains every possibility that the device won't see the light of day, or will lose its PSP branding and distinctive button symbols along the way and become simply a game-focused Android handset without a whiff of PlayStation around it.
However, this is undoubtedly spiritually closer to a true PSP Phone than anything we've seen thus far - and that tends to imply that Sony is taking the concept more seriously than ever before. What that means internally is hard to judge exactly, but we can make some educated guesses about the barriers that have fallen - or are in the process of falling - to make this possible.
Firstly, there's the simple fact that Sony Computer Entertainment is no longer ruled with an iron fist by its engineers. The firm's executives happily acknowledge this cultural shift, which has brought sweeping changes to the firm in waves since the departure of Ken Kutaragi. One inevitable consequence is that opposition to hardware invented outside SCE is likely to have lost the power of veto it would once have held. As an engineering-led division, SCE would have hated the idea of a Sony Ericsson developed platform carrying the PlayStation brand. As a software-led division, it can probably see the clear advantages of letting mobile phone engineers design mobile phones.
Secondly, there's Apple. I talk a lot about Apple in these columns, but not without good reason - the reality is that everyone in the portable gaming market is pretty obsessed with Apple, either as a massive new opportunity or, in the case of commercial rivals, as a terrifying new giant in the playground.
That applies to Sony more than most. Sony's battle with Apple extends across several markets, while in others the two maintain a slightly uncomfortable partnership. Sony Computer Entertainment has watched as Apple unpicked years of Sony dominance in the portable music player space, eroded a commanding position in the high-end laptop space, smashed Sony Ericsson's burgeoning high-end smartphone devices, and forced a new set of market conditions upon the firm's music and movie divisions. Now it's watching Apple stroll confidently into the gaming space, and it knows it has a battle on its hands.
If anything was ever going to get SCE building bridges to other parts of the company and learning the value of co-operation, it was this threat. In fact, it's not fair to single out SCE - the external threat of Apple is undoubtedly a powerful gelling factor for all of Sony's disparate divisions, many of which have been notably poor at co-operating with one another's initiatives in the past.
Thus, it's not hard to see how the marriage of PlayStation and phone could finally be on the way. The stars have aligned, if not technologically then certainly competitively - the ability to roll out PSP software on a phone handset is simply a competitive advantage that Sony must be considering seriously.
However, that's not to say that there aren't still major obstacles on this road. For a start, there's track record. You'd be forgiven for forgetting the last time that SCE put the PlayStation brand on a more general piece of hardware - I'd also almost forgotten the ill-fated PSX, until I ran into one being sold for next to nothing in a second-hand hardware store last week. Combining a PlayStation 2 with a high-end DVR system and various other media capabilities, the PSX was arguably a useful testbed for some of the PS3's media functions, but unquestionably a commercial disaster, and one which SCE would be justified in seeing as a stain on the PlayStation brand.
For another thing, there's the present status of the PlayStation Portable platform itself. While pledging ongoing support, Sony executives tacitly acknowledge that this is a platform which is winding down - even if it's being sustained pretty solidly in Japan by the likes of Capcom's Monster Hunter franchise, there's no question but that a replacement must be on the horizon.
Some speculation in the past has suggested that the next generation of PSP could solve the question of the PSP Phone for once and for all, by sweeping into the market fully equipped with phone functionality. In all likelihood, this would involve copying Apple's strategy by launching a phone product alongside a near-identical non-phone version (iPhone and iPod Touch, in Apple's case). It's a possibility that can't be ruled out for Sony, and one which would obviously involve SCE taking total ownership of the platform rather than simply working on gaming technology to Sony Ericsson. It would be a whole new set of competencies for SCE to learn - but as Apple demonstrates, that's not necessarily an insurmountable barrier.
However, what we saw this week doesn't fit that speculation. Although the PSP Phone prototype whose details were leaked across the Internet was substantially more powerful than the present PSP, every indication was that the device was a derivation of the existing PSP rather than an indication of where Sony is going with the next PSP. Sporting a design deeply similar to the PSP Go, it would be a powerful Android phone that could also run PSP games, rather than a genuine evolution of the PSP platform.
So here's the real question mark in my mind regarding the PSP Phone leak - does it really make sense for Sony, probably less than a year away from getting PSP 2 out into the public eye, to start building tech from the (pretty unsuccessful) PSPgo into phone handsets? One might argue that it could help to head off Apple's assault on the gaming sector - and certainly, a phone that can play Monster Hunter Portable would be pretty attractive in Japan - but the potential for a PSX style high profile failure which would pollute a future, PSP2-focused effort cannot be discounted.
One thing seems clear, at least, and that's that SCE and Sony Ericsson are most certainly talking to one another now. If there was ever an issue between the two sides of the business, the work that's been done on the prototype seen this week suggests that it's been resolved. No doubt the looming threat of Apple has helped to focus minds on both sides wonderfully - but a great many skeptics will need a great deal of convincing that their collaboration can buck the history of PlayStation's dalliances outside its core gaming market and create a platform that genuinely gives Cupertino some sleepless nights.