Vita TV points the way to Sony's future

If the hardware giant is to survive, networks and software are key

It's a clear sign of the times that right now, the most valuable thing Sony owns in the consumer electronics sphere isn't a piece of hardware at all. That in itself isn't entirely new - for many years, Sony's most valuable properties have been words, not items, with the Sony and PlayStation brands being worth far more than any individual product which carried them. Now, though, Sony has reached the point where the most valuable thing it owns, and the company's best if not only chance of navigating the extremely tough circumstances in which it finds itself, is networked software - the Sony Entertainment Network, to be precise.

Sony Entertainment Network is the slightly cumbersome name given to the wider network of which the rather more familiar (and less stuffily named) PlayStation Network is a part. It's Sony's answer to the Apple infrastructure behind iTunes Music Store and the App Store, or Google's Play. Its roots in the PlayStation are clear - it's by far at its most developed and refined as a service on PlayStation device, but it's gradually rolling out across other Sony devices, even if the implementation on some of those devices is shockingly poor and clunky.

"A fantastic online shop and network service has become the vital, beating heart of any consumer hardware business"

Sony Entertainment Network is far from perfect. If you use something like an Xperia phone or tablet (devices which are rapidly becoming best-of-breed for Android platforms after years of lagging embarrassingly far behind Samsung), you'll find bits of SEN littered around the phone, poorly integrated with the operating system, fighting for mindshare with Google's own Play and even - in the case of PlayStation Mobile, a mobile game platform built on SEN - not actually installed by default, a bewildering and inexplicable piece of foolishness. Use a PlayStation 3 or a PS Vita, though, and you'll have seen SEN evolve into a slick, attractive, functional and cleverly designed service that sells, rents, stores and promotes content extremely effectively.

The temptation is to say "right, yes, but it's just an online shop" - which is absolutely true, and yet completely misses the point. A fantastic online shop and network service has become the vital, beating heart of any consumer hardware business. Customers build up libraries of content - games, movies, TV shows, music, books, applications - from online stores, and this hugely influences their decisions in future hardware purchases. An iPhone user is vastly more likely to buy an iPad than a Nexus 10 tablet, because lots of the stuff in their library will work seamlessly with it. Conversely, a Samsung Galaxy Tab user isn't likely to end up carrying an iPhone 5 because their Google Play content won't run on it.

Sony's most powerful tool in this entire situation is the PlayStation, because the PlayStation has a mature network platform and store as well as an absolutely enviable library of software and a strong reputation among gamers - who are core consumers of all sorts of consumer technology, not just games. Sony needs an iron in this fire, because otherwise, it risks being just another box-shifter - a company who ekes a profit out of selling hardware that runs someone else's OS and someone else's highly profitable content store. For a company which owns the world's biggest movie studios and directly publishes some of the biggest and most critically acclaimed games, that would be a daft and humiliating defeat to accept.

"It can access everything you've bought on your Sony Entertainment Network account for Vita, including your PSP software, PSone and PS2 games and other non-game media"

The relevance of this discussion is that this is exactly the strategy which we saw being pursued at Sony's autumn update this week. The slimmed down Vita redesign is a sidenote in many respects (it looks nice, but many people will hold fire until there's a final verdict on whether the new LCD display matches the quality of the old model's OLED - don't rush a negative judgment, as modern IPS LCD panels are a comfortable match for OLED). The real story was Vita TV, a cunning piece of obvious-in-hindsight maneuvering which leverages the network effect of Sony Entertainment Network superbly.

Vita TV is a $100 box which runs PlayStation Vita games - including a huge range of great indie titles whose number is exploding in slow motion as Sony continues to loosen its grip on publishing, giving more and more creators access to its platform. It can access everything you've bought on your Sony Entertainment Network account for Vita, including your PSP software, PSone and PS2 games and other non-game media. It can cross-play with PS3 titles that support it, and some PS3 games also give you a second copy for the Vita for free. When PS4 arrives, you'll be able to use Vita TV as a second screen for the console - pop a Vita TV in a bedroom and you'll be able to play PS4 games on it remotely when the main screen is in use. Moreover, if you have a PS Plus account for your PS3 (or PS4), you'll also be getting a steady feed of Vita games to play for free on your new box.

Notice how many other Sony hardware items were mentioned above - and that's without mentioning that some content (limited for now, but bound to grow in future) will also work on the suddenly-very-desirable Xperia tablets and phones, too. This is a network effect in full swing. Vita TV does take much of the wind out of the sails of devices like Ouya and Gamestick, as plenty of commentators have noted, but that's almost by accident - it knocks them out of the way in the midst of a full-bodied lunge at the Apple TV, a minor Apple product which has been sitting on the periphery of the TV market scaring the living crap out of every incumbent for the past three years. Apple will almost certainly upgrade the Apple TV to be a more serious TV device in time; Sony fully intends to be right there ready for them, with devices that do much of what you'd expect from an Apple TV rather well - a $400 PS4 for the high-end, a $100 Vita TV for the low-end and interesting benefits for any household that ends up with both.

"One has to hope that this is only the beginning. It's a fascinating seed of a strategy but not actually a strategy just yet"

One has to hope that this is only the beginning. It's a fascinating seed of a strategy but not actually a strategy just yet. For this to really work, SEN needs to extend its tendrils fully across the Sony range - a fixed and fully integrated implementation on the mobile and tablet devices is an important first step, but it will also be important to see Vita TV technology worming its way into the Bravia TV line-up, not as a premium feature but (at least eventually) as an absolutely standard element of every TV Sony makes, should they choose to remain in that perilous business at all. Buy a Sony TV and get the instant ability to access all your SEN content, to use it to play your PS Plus freebies or to connect it to a

PS4 somewhere in the house and use it as a secondary screen? Tempting - perhaps even tempting enough to give Sony the differential from Samsung it so desperately needs. Of course, focusing on SEN is not a fail-safe strategy. There are many pitfalls - the company needs customers to trust and like SEN and the Sony brand overall, it needs to ensure its content library is a match for anything available elsewhere and it needs to make sure people are aware of the possibilities opened up by staying within the Sony brand for their future devices.

But not pursuing the potential of its network store to its fullest is a certain recipe for disaster for Sony. The company finds itself in a position that is like a dark mirror of Apple - whose founder was famously a huge fan of Sony itself. It cannot compete with rivals from South Korea or China on price, yet its focus on hardware engineering has consistently produced features that don't differentiate enough to let its technology sell at a higher price point, as Apple's do. The answer lies not in hardware but in software and networks - and SEN is, if not the entire answer, then at least the cornerstone of an answer. A few more clever, aggressive moves like Vita TV, and we might start to see the clouds lifting from Sony's horizon.

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Latest comments (13)

Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 4 years ago
And it's probably not coming to the US or Europe, probably due to Vita tanking, and the tens of millions of installed AppleTv about to get controller support next week,
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee4 years ago

Would be a shame given that this device would be incredibly cheap and simple to manufacture, much like its micro-console rivals.
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Matt Martin Editor, GamesIndustry.biz4 years ago
I'm sure it'll come to other markets next year. Once it's trialled in other regions and after the PS4 gets a foothold in Europe/US. The Vita is in the middle of a resurgence at the moment too.
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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media4 years ago
@Christian I own an Xbox360 and a PS3 and love them both, but I have always said pretty much the same about Sony's interface. Xbox Live is way ahead in every single way: game descriptions and features info, demos, ingame videos and pics... even Live's offer in media content is much bigger, which is ironic given the entertainment giant that Sony is (although this may be a local issue involving distribution in different countries).

Now that they're making it a premium service, they should definitely catch up to Nintendo and MS.
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Caleb Hale Journalist 4 years ago
Though I wouldn't have said it six months ago, I think the PS Vita's best days are ahead of it, especially if Sony can effectively leverage the streaming technology they've gain by acquiring Gaikai. If one day, for instance, you are able to access any of your PlayStation 4 titles on your Vita via public WiFi, it puts Sony's library of games in the console and mobile space simultaneously. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather chip away at a meatier console gaming experience during my down time out and about, rather than fiddling with Angry Birds and running down the battery on my smartphone.

What's also interesting is how this has the potential to turn droves of people away from buying physical copies of games at retail. It's not being said, but seems to me the streaming capabilities between the PS4 and Vita would work at its optimal level if the games were downloaded and stored on the console's hard drive, not partially read from a disc. Inside the house, it's easy to see how the Vita could simply stream the game currently being run on the PS4. Take that streaming capability outside of your local WiFI network (which I believe is where Sony would eventually like to see this go), accessing your games, I think is going to rely much more heavily on cloud services, including games you've downloaded from PSN and game saves.

This also might involve moving into territories of DRM, the very thing Sony is being lauded for not doing at this point. I wonder, though, if the versatility offered in being able to essentially take your library of console games with you would be enticing enough for people to go strictly to downloads and consent to some form of DRM?
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Felix Leyendecker Senior 3D Artist, Crytek4 years ago

This is exactly right. They have been showing off this feature in the japanese playstation commercial a few days ago: at 1:26 you see the girl using her vita to stream a game of knack from her home ps4.

I think it would be cloud gaming done right, because this way, there are no costs for sony. If they were to provide datacenters for rendering and streaming the games, like onlive or gaikai, they'd have to pay for the hardware, CPU time, and traffic, if you stream it from your home ps4, all the costs are paid for by the user instead.

The latency and user experience will be out of sony's control, though, and might be bad in countries or cities with sub-par network infrastructure. This means that they might keep this feature exclusive to certain territories for now.

If you bought games digitally and have them on the ps4 HDD, you can start them up while you're out of the house, whereas for physical copies you'd have to be at home to change the discs. So there's another advantage right there, as you say.

I doubt they will get into server-farm style cloud gaming in a big way, it just isn't cost effective. For PS3 backwards compatibility, they will have to, but it's unclear how prominent of a feature this will become.
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Caleb Hale Journalist 4 years ago

This will be the generation where this kind of streaming gets put through the paces. I think it'll probably take the better part of this console cycle for it to work well on a consistent basis. Sony has been scant on details about the Gaikai service. I don't know whether that's the company biding their time or if they simply don't have anything solid to show for it yet. I predict a very rough start that gradually gets better over time.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd4 years ago
@ Matt If by resurgence you mean record low sales (It lost to the Wii U in the US in August), and the worst upcoming software lineup the platform has ever experienced. Aside from Tearaway there is nothing big-ticket on the horizon. The best it has going for it is PC ports of indie games, which are also hitting the PS3 and PS4 anyway.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 4 years ago
The other problem I forgot to mention is this :

In Japan, SmartTv and streaming media boxes in general are pretty much nonexistent. Due to licensi ng issues, and low penetration of home broadband (everyone surfs their phones), its just not something people have beeninterestedi. Sony hopes to change that there, but outside Japan, its going to be an expensive media streamer that has a very high production cost compared to an AppleTv or Roku.
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Tanya Rei Myoko Programmer 4 years ago
There are screenshots, text and videos if you click the file
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game4 years ago
It also offers something that PS one and PS2 offered, but the expensive manufacturing costs of PS3 prevent it doing this late in its life. As the new generation comes in with a high price tag, a sub 100 system to sell to the people who wait for hardware to hit impulse buy territory. Unfortunately it obviously doesn't come with the 7 year games library that a cheap PS3 would, but it is still attractive.

That, and the advantages combined with other PS hardware mean I'm cautiously optimistic. If I get a PS4 next year, there is no way I could shell out for a second one for my son, but I could get him one of these. It would be really awesome if some games supported a dual screen local multiplayer, where instead of split screen the game sent one 720p picture to the main TV and one to a vita TV, although I guess that depends on whether the PS4 hardware is capable. The possibilities to make Vita games optimised around in and out of home play could be interesting, like an RPG or action adventure with long main quests for home play, and half hour sidequests with drop in multiplayer geared around playing on the train could be awesome. If Sony could entice Monster Hunter back I can't see that not exploding in Japan.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 4 years ago
The capture system is tied into whatever goes on screen.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 4 years ago
Sony's certainly headed the right way with SEN, as it has in many ways been for a long time, but it worries me that they seem to be having difficulty addressing some of the really annoying parts of the system. The new PlayStation Store on my PS3 is nicer in some ways, but the load time has now jumped to over 45 seconds, which is long enough that I no longer pop in to browse as often as I used to. The new UI also makes it harder to quickly look through a lot of games and get a quick overview of each one.

But what really hurts is a problem they've had since the beginning: the only way to browse the things you've bought is to scroll through a chronologically sorted list of everything you've ever downloaded, including demos, avatars, and the like. In my case, this is many hundreds of items. At least with Steam you can search the list of games you've bought.

I'd imagine the situation would become worse if I also bought movies and TV shows from PSN. (I can't, because of region restrictions--I use a US region account even though I live in Japan because of the language issues.)

And then, of course, there's the problem of PSOne (and probably other) games having to be bought separately for Xperia devices even if you already own them for your PS3/PSP/Vita.

Sony's got a huge amount of content, but it's both awkward to access on the best devices, and somewhat disconnected. (Another example is that my PSN account and my Sony Reader Store accounts are completely separate.) If they can manage to bring things together with a decent interface, especially one that lets me manage my collection from anywhere (i.e., being able to check on my Android tablet or PC whether or not I own a particular PS3 game) they could easily give Google a run for their money. But I have doubts about their ability to execute this.
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