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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.

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Latest comments (6)

Andrew Fisher Writer 7 years ago
Sony's work in the console field has never really been engineer-led, although it has taken some good decisions - such as the DVD drive in the PS2.

Having PSP Minis at the launch of a PSP Phone would be an advantage, but it's hard to see how they can make back the lead that Apple and Android already have.
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Mike Wells Writer 7 years ago
A PSP phone would likely fail like every other game-centric phone ever created. A high-end phone today has to have an "app for everything". Building a phone that is designed around having one other main function, whether that's gaming (N-Gage) or SatNav (Garmin nuvifone) just doesn't work - it appeals to too small a market and is economically unsustainable for the manufacturer and the networks. It wasn't viable for companies that managed a whole segmented portfolio of devices over a long period, and certainly not for one-niche ponies. In 18 months to 2 years you will replace the phone - with what? And what happens then to your previous software investment? And why then would developers write for it and take advantage of the device's unique features (it has some, right...)? Apple's approach effectively locks you into iTunes/App Store, persuades you to retain your investment (and maybe buy an iPad or a Mac to leverage it), guarantees new things and diversity in software and does enough with better performance/features in the next, otherwise very similar, handset to keep you onside. FYI: I don't own an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Not a fanboi, but respect how Apple has turned the mobile industry on its head by changing the game from being mostly about hardware to mostly about software.
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Bruce Kennedy BAhons Creative Director, Kennedy Monk Limited7 years ago
I can understand it's probably unprofessional for to be reporting on anything other than solid official facts. But it feels like this post is a bit late to the party.... The PSP phone IS real. Engadget rarely get it wrong. They try to report real insider scoops rather that flirt with rumours. If they say it's real I say it's real. I guess the point is, that while it may be 'physically' real, any meaningful existence is still in question.

The nightmare for Sony and SE is speed of response time to a changing market.
The genie has been out of the bottle for all to see for quite some time and there's no going back - online is the way forward for almost every aspect of the entertainment and leisure industry and the AppStore is a shining example of the new order that folks like Valve pioneered for PC gamers. Apple's success in the mobile-games sector took the industry by surprise and everyone is scrabbling to catch up. Perhaps an un-holy marriage between Sony and Google's Android platform might be the sanest choice in an insane world.

Positioning the PSP phone must be a marketing nightmare though... who is it for? Think about this: I was considering buying my 3 and a half year old daughter her first camera or kid-friendly Gameboy type gizmo, maybe even a DS... but there's no need:- she already has my old (deactivated) iphone to play with - and she loves it. Her favourite game (Peppa Pig) cost me 3 quid! Ok it's an extreme example but my point is the PSP already seems so niche and the most likely target (12+ year old boys) would probably still prefer an xBox or PS3 for 'serious gaming' - and I'd bet Dad is more likely to go for that because he might be able to enjoy it too.

Summary: the PSP phone HAS been built... Sony are keeping quiet. Maybe because it's so late to the game, they are wondering if they can actually afford to release it now?
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Show all comments (6)
Nicholas Liu Studying Bioinformatics, University of Alberta7 years ago
Yeah, while the concept of a PSP phone sounds alluring to somebody such as myself - i enjoy big screens, android, and actual games... I have to wonder how large the market for a phone such as this is. It hits a very specific and very small group of people - people that like at least 2 of the 3 and have the money to pay for one (can anyone imagine how expensive this piece of hardware would be?). And... at the price I'd be paying for this PSP phone, would the targeted consumer actually want this amount of convergence? I personally prefer a hardware keyboard than a set of dedicated controls, so in that way it's useless to me - it would make more sense to carry a PSP plus my actual phone.

Just my 2cp.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
Too + Much + Convergence = Fail (with cheese)...

This is getting ridiculous. On the portable device front, Sony needs to concentrate on allowing developers to make the best games they can for the PSP platform, not slowly cranking out what's going to be an overpriced tech toy that will be rendered obsolete within about a year or less of its eventual release. Sure, Android is lovely and the Sony brand will move units amongst the fan base. However, unless this thing can walk the dog and play actual PSP games, I can see a bunch of pissed off folks with no money to spend on a new device shrugging their shoulders (yet hanging around the bargain bin once the price drops accordingly).
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Adam Campbell Studying Games Technology, City University London7 years ago
I highly doubt a PSP phone would fail, especially looking at the PSPgo (visually) as a great prototype of a potential touch device complete with extra slide out controls. And people will always continue to buy their high end smart-phones when they renew or start contracts.

Sony-Ericsson need something like a Playstation brand to add to the other Sony influenced devices they've created, and Sony need to answer their uncomfortable position in handheld gaming with stronger rivals (Nintendo and in many ways Apple) and the bad piracy situation - worse than PC in many people's eyes.

Afaik the device is real, but they're probably spending a lot of time worrying about getting everything right how to take on the world with it. They need all the smart-phone bells and whistles and a robust offering of games and apps through PSN. A PS branded phone isn't general purpose enough to take on Apple in every corner (the non gamers) but who cares, its not all about dominating with one handset. For Sony Ericsson this could be the thing they need to take market share in the multi-media hungry and gamer side of the market.

Whilst they're at it, they should probably get some Vaio collaboration going for the business users.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 31st October 2010 9:49pm

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