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Comment: Apple turns up the heat on PlayStation Portable

According to Sony's chief executive producer Phil Harrison, the company isn't fazed in the slightest by Apple's decision to launch a video-enabled version of the iPod, a move which essentially means that the world's favourite portable music player can now compete with the PlayStation Portable on yet another front.

Of course, this isn't strictly speaking anything to do with the games business. It's easy to shrug and say, "well, that's the video market", or the music market, or whatever. The iPod doesn't play third-party games, any more than the Macintosh range - which is positioning itself gradually as a living room rival to Microsoft's Windows Media Centre PC and Xbox 360 - plays console titles. In theory, this has nothing to do with us.

In practice, it has everything to do with us. Videogames doesn't exist in isolation any more; we are part of the entertainment industry at large, and it's becoming increasingly hard to ignore the fact that many of the hardware platforms which we like to think of as videogames consoles are being viewed by mass market consumers as media systems, with games simply being one of the types of media they can access through them.

The PlayStation Portable is the best example to date of this, and here in the UK at least, Sony has pushed the music, movie and photo capabilities of the device as hard if not harder than the gaming aspect in all of its marketing. It's impossible to say, of course, how many PSPs are being sold to people for use as portable movie players and how many as games consoles, but it's worth noting that almost half of people who bought a PSP are thought to have bought a UMD movie in September. We'd love to see statistics for the sales of 1Gb and 2Gb Memory Sticks in the same timeframe.

So when Apple announces that the iPod, a device which Sony was happy to compare the PSP to throughout the development of the handheld, is going to add video functionality, it's a big deal. It suggests that a major show-down is brewing in the portable media market, and this is merely a border skirmish - the real action probably won't be seen until 2006, and the victor is difficult to call at this point.

Harrison is correct in implying that the video iPod announced last night isn't really a threat to the PSP; while it has major advantages in terms of size and storage capacity, the iPod Video has a very small screen compared to the PSP and a very limited library of video content. However, this is only a toe in the water for Apple, and it would be foolish to assume that the company doesn't have a much more capable video device in its labs with a view to releasing it further down the line.

What's much more important than the hardware, after all, is the software and services which surround it. The PSP is a wonderful piece of kit, but if Apple want to build something as good as the PSP for video playback, they certainly can, given a sufficiently large investment. The real battle will be fought over content and user experience - and in that regard, it's clear that Sony has a lot of work to do.

Apple, after all, has a lot of experience of delivering content to users digitally thanks to the iTunes Music Store, which is the most successful service of its type in the world. Last night the firm added music videos and a selection of television episodes to the purchase options in the store; expect this selection to grow rapidly, and possibly to expand to full-length movies when the firm finally introduces a "proper" video playback device down the line. The experience of downloading these videos and placing them on your iPod Video is as seamless and painless as the music experience is; an end-to-end solution which even the most technically inept consumers can manage with ease.

By contrast, it's early days yet for Sony's PSP content download service. The PSP only gained the ability to handle DRM-protected files this week, and even if the company were to release a decent PSP media downloader and manager tomorrow, there's much user education to do before they get used to using that with their device. While almost every iPod owner uses the iTunes software by default, most PSP users currently use third-party tools for encoding video for their handhelds and uploading it to the Memory Stick.

In other words, Sony faces a major struggle in ensuring that its device remains the platform of choice for mobile video. Right now, it has the hardware advantage - but the hardware advantage can evaporate overnight. What the firm needs to do, and what the games industry must hope and pray that it succeeds at, is to create a software and service platform that rivals Apple's, and build a user experience for acquiring and watching video content that is painless and simple.

We're sure that Sony is already working on this, just as Apple is working constantly to improve its own solution - and we fervently hope, for the sake of all consumers, that it's on this playing field that the battle is fought. The alternative is a grim vision of another standards war, where certain movies are available to iPod users and certain movies to PSP users, with consumers being denied access to some content depending on what system they have. The net result of that kind of standards tug-of-war will be simple - a bonanza for online movie piracy, from which nobody will benefit.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.