Comment: Harrison preaches online with the zeal of a convert
One of the best-known stories in the software industry is the tale of Microsoft's U-turn on the Internet; a point in the late nineties where Bill Gates, reportedly spurred on by a memo from a young executive called J Allard, suddenly realised that the company's choice to ignore the growth of the Internet and the Web had been a terrible error. Within a matter of months, the firm's policy was reversed, Internet-focused products were in development, and companies such as Netscape were recognised as major threats to the software giant's dominance of the market.
It would be unfair to categorise Phil Harrison's newfound zeal for the Internet in the same way. Sony has dabbled in online services before and has paid lip service to the concept of connected gaming and digital distribution on its consoles for years - and Harrison himself would be quick to point out that the PS2 online service actually does have more users worldwide than even Microsoft's Xbox Live. However, there's no doubt that when Harrison took the stage at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose yesterday, he preached a vision of connected, networked, community-focused gaming with all the fire and zeal of the newly converted. Harrison, and Sony, have got the online religion.
On one level, Microsoft can afford a moment of smugness at this point. Much of what Harrison is promising has been a part of the Xbox offering for nearly half a decade, and much more has been built into the Xbox 360 since day one. PlayStation 3 will be online out of the box, will offer a free basic service, will be supported by a massive infrastructure being built and financed by Sony, and will offer community features like unique IDs, friend lists, voice and text chat and content download as part of its basic feature set - all of which will be quite familiar to users of Xbox Live.
Even in terms of look and feel, Sony's PlayStation Network Platform (the unwieldy name for which is, we're assured, only an internal name - expect a much snappier name to be bandied about to consumers come E3) apes Microsoft's offering in some respects. Small pop-up windows over games will inform you about new messages or invitations from friends, for example - a clever innovation which has brought the online service far closer to the game experience on Xbox 360.
However, even if Microsoft can certainly be forgiven for a little of the inevitable eye-rolling and "we told you so" comments at this point, the Seattle-based firm would do well to examine the other options Sony is adding to its service - some of which go far beyond the current offerings of Xbox Live. Digital distribution, for example, is clearly a major part of Sony's plan, and the firm has thought through its offering in this regard far more clearly than Microsoft has. PS3 will be able to boot games directly from the hard drive, with no game disc required - a step beyond Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade titles, which should allow Sony to digitally distribute PSone and PS2 back catalogue games to the new system as well as a host of new content. Also welcome is the introduction of in-game shops for content, which mean that people will be able to go to customised, themed stores within games and buy relevant items there, rather than working through a single monolithic Marketplace interface, as is currently the case with titles on Xbox Live (although we don't doubt that future Xbox titles may ape just this kind of functionality).
Billing, too, is something Sony is determined to get right. The company is talking about a flexible billing system that will allow for per-item purchases, micropayments, subscriptions and pretty much any other payment mechanism you care to consider. The firm's open architecture means MMOG companies will have little hassle connecting their servers into the network, something which has led MMO firms to criticise Microsoft's Xbox Live business model of late; and crucially, Sony plans to make it free to play games on the PS3, rather than charging a fee to play the kind of non-persistent games that most people are used to playing for free on their PCs, as Microsoft does.
Ultimately, some will argue that Sony is late to the online party, but others will point out that even despite Microsoft's brilliant Xbox Live offering, the party hasn't exactly been packed to the rafters for the last few years. Microsoft certainly has the advantage of having done all this before and made all the mistakes there are to make, but anyone writing off Sony's offering at this point in time is a fool. The firm understands how online should work, even if it doesn't have huge experience in terms of actually making it work, and offerings such as the next evolution of Singstar, which will turn the hugely successful karaoke title into an ongoing service with extensive community features and downloadable tracks being updated on an ongoing basis, have more mass market appeal than anything that's yet been seen online on a console.
Phil Harrison's enthusiasm for online, reflecting the overall enthusiasm of Sony Computer Entertainment, may come as a change of tone for the firm after years of very shaky commitment to the sector, but his missionary zeal should not be written off as bandwagon-jumping. Sony is serious about online, and it's serious about all that online brings - not just head to head gaming, but the evolution from selling products to providing services, from seeing boxed games as the end of a customer relationship to seeing them as the beginning of one, and from an ecosystem with a simple, single revenue stream to one with complex intertwined revenues. It's a brave new world, and Sony isn't the first to plant its flag here - but the market leader is determined to unfurl a bigger flag, on a higher peak, than its rivals have done so far. They will have to work hard to ensure that they're not eclipsed.