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Is Two a Crowd?

Comment: Sony's dual-version strategy leaves the industry cold

"Are there two versions that people want to buy, is my question. I don't know. When I look at those formats, I think it just confuses the audience. They don't know which one to buy, developers don't know which one to create for, and retailers don't know which one to stock. I think we wouldn't take that strategy. We wouldn't create confusion."

Not the words of an analyst or market commentator talking about PlayStation 3 this week, but rather the words of Sony's worldwide studios boss Phil Harrison, speaking at the Game Developers Conference in London last September. Harrison was talking about the Xbox 360, for which the two-version retail strategy had just been announced, and at the time, there were few who disagreed with him.

To give Harrison his due, the dual-SKU approach Sony is taking is quite a different beast from the Xbox 360 Core System, if only for the simple fact that both systems have a hard drive - with the omission of a hard drive being the single most criticised element of the Core System, since it forces developers to work on the assumption that the box has no mass storage. However, it's still worth dragging that quote up from nine months ago, if only to illustrate Sony's current lack of what the British Labour Party would like to call "joined up thinking" on its launch strategy for the PS3.

At E3 last week, Sony's message was clear - sort of. We were getting two SKUs of the PlayStation 3, with price points separated by 100 Euro or $100 depending on which side of the Atlantic you happen to reside on; admittedly, not everyone at the giant company seemed to be on quite the same page about what the difference in specifications was going to be, but the dual-SKU plan, at least, was clear.

By the time we raised our heads in the UK at the start of this week, everything was looking significantly less clear. Completely aside from the lack of a price point in pounds, retailers on the ground here seemed unconvinced that the cut-price (albeit still more expensive than its competitors) 20GB version is ever going to reach the shelves in this region. At least the questions of specifications seems to have been cleared up, with the 20GB version confirmed to be fully upgradeable and compatible with wireless controllers and so on.

Now we know, courtesy of SCE UK boss Ray Maguire, that the UK price point for the PlayStation 3 is being set at GBP 425 - a slight margin over what our brethren on the Continent are expected to pay, which is a somewhat disappointing decision on Sony's part - and there's no word on any price point for the 20GB version, adding fuel to the idea that it won't see the light of day in the UK - at least not for launch. But why?

The answer to that may lie simply in a decision by Sony UK to heed Harrison's eminently sensible comments about creating confusion with a dual-SKU strategy; but it's also worth looking at the reception that the Xbox 360 Core System got in the UK when it launched here last year. While in other territories, the presence of the Core System may have helped to swing consumers over to picking up an Xbox 360, the UK was a much less price-sensitive territory - and anecdotal evidence gleaned from retailers and consumers alike suggests that many of the Core Systems sold went to customers who wanted a full-spec system, but didn't want to wait for them to trickle back into stock.

The question is, if the second SKU is going to be dropped in the UK, what does this mean for other territories? Will some of them follow suit, removing the 20GB model from the line-up - and given the cross-border nature of media coverage, will the presence of two versions in some markets but only one version in others lead to even more confusion than the two-version approach will cause by itself?

Ultimately, Sony's problems with the two-SKU approach are still probably less severe than those faced by Microsoft, since the differences between the two systems on offer are in ways less essential than those between the Xbox 360 and the Core System, rendering the education of the consumer somewhat less important. However, the company already has its work cut out for it in terms of convincing consumers that the PlayStation 3 is a worthwhile proposition in the first place; six months out, few people know what Blu-Ray is, and even fewer actually care. Adding to that task with a potentially confusing two-SKU launch plan seems to be asking for trouble; it's not hard to see why the UK would decide to abandon such a strategy, and it now remains to be seen whether any other regions will follow suit.

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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.