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PlayStation: Evolve, Multiply, Conquer

Anyone who has been watching Sony's ambitions in the games market, since the death of its SNES CD drive collaboration with Nintendo spawned the PlayStation project, will know one thing - this is no idle dabbling in a new marketplace for the Japanese giant, and never was. Sony clearly sees the games market as a stepping stone to dominance of the home entertainment sector, and in keeping with the approach of many Japanese companies, it has a long-term gameplan for its PlayStation brand and technology.

Another Japanese corporate trait which Sony displays very clearly - and frustratingly for commentators - is that of playing its cards close to its chest, and peering into the company's future plans is a task that involves a lot of educated guessing (and judging from some of the commentary on the web, uneducated guessing) and, where that fails, simple speculation.

This week, however, Sony chose to show us a few of its cards at a press conference in Tokyo, where the company announced a new consumer product - the PSX - and gave us further insight into plans for its upcoming handheld platform, the PlayStation Portable. The recently promoted SCE boss, Ken Kutaragi, unveiled the most solid indicator yet of where Sony's business as a whole is going over the next decade, as the company's plans gradually focus in on the PlayStation brand, and various technology strands - ranging from minidisks, PDAs and microprocessors to Blu-Ray media technology and Memory Stick solid state storage - converge.

It says a lot about Sony that Ken Kutaragi is considered by many to be an obvious future candidate for the top job at the company. Sony's ambitious vision of the future is all about electronic entertainment and gaming is the core part of that vision - and, ironically enough, may be the catalyst which drives Sony to become the Microsoft of the early 21st century.

PSX - Sony's Stealth Console

"The 'X' in PSX refers to the 'crossover' of games and electronics," explained Kutaragi at this week's unveiling of the new device, "but it also stands for 'extraordinary'". The man certainly has a flair for hyperbole (remember when playing on a PS2 was going to be just like jacking into the Matrix?), but considering what he was announcing, we're actually in agreement. PSX is extraordinary, not because of the hardware itself, but because of its importance to the PlayStation "roadmap" and because of the ambition it reveals.

It's tempting, though, to write PSX off as being not a lot more than the PlayStation 2 equivalent of Panasonic's Q - a games console in a shiny silver box with some added media functionality. After all, there's nothing in this device which isn't available on the shelves of electronics retailers in Akihabara already - TiVo style hard drive video recorders are hardly rare, standalone DVD burners are gradually dropping in price and becoming more widely available, and the PlayStation 2 is practically ubiquitous.

However, the integration of all of those devices into a single box is an important step for Sony, and the fact that the company has chosen to stick with a variation of the PlayStation brand for the product is a clear indication of where the brand is being led. Over a quarter of a century ago, Bill Gates stated that Microsoft's aim was to put "a PC on every desktop and in every home"; Sony's aim now is to put a PlayStation at the heart of every living room and in every pocket.

A key element of that aim is making PlayStation more acceptable to the world at large. The PlayStation 2 is hardly a thing of beauty ("Darth Vader's toaster" remains our favourite description of the hardware) but it's fine in the context of a bachelor pad, a teenager's bedroom or hidden away in a cupboard under the television of a family living room. In order to achieve mass market acceptance, though, that's not enough. The design conscious must be on board - and crucially, that includes the female sector.

You can be sure that that's a core part of the reasoning behind PSX - and it's why it's already been dubbed as a "stealth console" in gaming circles. With an understated silver finish, a sleek front panel, a slot loading mechanism and all the ugly ports hidden away around the back (including even the joypad ports), it doesn't look like a console - it looks like the best looking DVD player that money can buy.

PSX will bring the PlayStation out of the bedroom or the den, and into the living room - right where Sony wants it. With the installed base of the PlayStation 2 hovering in the 50 million range at the moment, the "serious" gaming credentials of the platform are firmly established; Sony is free to start bringing the words "PlayStation" to the lips of the vital mass market sector that PSX aims squarely for, secure in the knowledge that its reputation among the core gaming demographic is unassailable.

Of course, that's not all there is to PSX. "The PSX will be more than just a PS2 compatible," Kutaragi told the audience in Tokyo earlier this week. "I think it has the power to change the way you see all digital appliances."

Hyperbole at work again, naturally, but there's no doubt that the media centre capabilities of the system easily match any other selection of devices you might care to wire up under your television. It's a world-class product which will be high on many wishlists both in Japan and overseas this Christmas, and it's a clever move to associate the PlayStation name with it.

It's also a step in the direction of making PlayStation into more than just a gaming device. The SCPH-50000 revision of the PS2, announced earlier this month, added more advanced DVD playback to the console, but the PSX elevates this approach to a whole new level, confirming completely the conclusions of commentators who have seen the PlayStation as a pitch into the general home entertainment market from the outset.

With a PSX under your television, the PlayStation isn't just something you turn on to play a game any more; it's what you turn on to watch TV or look at TV listings, to record your favourite programmes, to watch movies, to listen to music or - potentially - to download new media over a broadband connection. That's a compelling proposition, and a vision of exactly where Sony plans to go with the PS3 - or at least, with PS3 compatible devices, if not with the core console itself.

Microsoft, of course, has the same plan - and it could be argued that Microsoft was only spurred into entering the console market in the first place because it realised where Sony's gameplan was leading, and recognised the threat posed to its own plans to dominate the home media space. However, the PSX completely leapfrogs the media capabilities of the Xbox, even if it is a device aimed at quite a different market - and more importantly, it shows just how good Sony are at that particular part of the game, sending a clear shot over Microsoft's bows ahead of the inevitable showdown between Xbox 2 and PS3.

Sony is reminding us that it was making incredibly desirable pieces of consumer electronics which people paid through the nose to put into their living rooms when Bill Gates was still thinking it might not be a bad idea to learn how to program computers. The game isn't quite that simple, but it's a powerful message nonetheless.

PlayStation Portable - The New Walkman?

The PlayStation Portable is gradually being revealed as a far more complex and interesting beast than the handheld console we all took it for at E3. If the PSX is a stealth device designed to bring the PlayStation brand into living rooms it has previously been unable to penetrate, the PSP is no less a stealth console - designed to sit neatly in the pockets of people who wouldn't even consider carrying a GBA SP or an N-Gage.

Originally introduced by Ken Kutaragi as the "Walkman for the 21st century", the PSP appears to be exactly that - not so much a portable games console, as a media centre in your pocket, and perhaps more importantly, a satellite of the main PlayStation media centre which resides in your living room.

Like the PSX, the PSP integrates a selection of technologies drawn from across Sony's consumer electronics division into a single device. Technology, and experience developed over years of working on portable music players, solid state memory, miniature optical media, PDA devices and secure digital distribution systems, are being combined in a single product which, if not exactly a culmination of those efforts, is certainly a major milestone on the roadmap.

The PSP is a music player, a movie player and a game player - with Sony seemingly keen to emphasise that it's all three of those things simultaneously, rather than a games console that happens to play back music and video files. Once again, we see the same approach being adopted here as with the PSX - your PlayStation Portable isn't just the system you turn on to play a videogame on the move, it's what you carry around to listen to music or watch video on the train, and possibly even to perform basic PDA functions. PlayStation becomes synonymous with all kinds of electronic media, rather than just games - exactly where Sony wants to position the name.

A lot of things about the PSP remain unclear, though. The exact specifications of the system with regard to gaming haven't been revealed yet, although it's obvious from Kutaragi's statements both yesterday and at E3 that the console has been designed to provide high quality 3D graphics, easily surpassing the performance of the PSone.

Whether the system will play PSone games in some form remains open to speculation, though. Some have suggested that it may be possible to upload your PSone titles to the system, either using Memory Sticks or rewritable UMD discs (the 1.8GB Minidisc style storage media used by the device); however, sadly for the consumer, it's much more likely that Sony will opt to repackage select parts of the PSone back catalogue and sell them as PSP titles, in much the same way as Nintendo has done with SNES titles and the GBA.

What little we know about the design so far is promising, however, and shows how much Sony have learned about portable device design since the introduction of the original Walkman. The system will have a USB 2.0 port as standard, presumably enabling connection to your PC (or PS2/PSX/PS3...) so that you can upload ATRAC music files sourced from your own CD collection or from an online digital music store. A lithium-ion battery rather than awkward AA batteries (like the GBA SP) is sure to be a popular move, as is the inclusion of Memory Stick solid state storage as well as UMD optical discs.

The Memory Stick slot is made particularly interesting by the fact that the PSX also boasts one, and we expect the PS3 to replace proprietary memory cards entirely in favour of Memory Stick. Indeed, it's expected that Sony will shortly bring out an adapter enabling Memory Sticks to be used as memory devices on the PS2 (similar to Nintendo's forthcoming SD Card adapter for the Cube) - a logical move, since both devices use the MagicGate security and encryption system. The gameplay potential for moving data files between PSP and living room PlayStation devices is huge, and we'll be interested to see what developers come up with given this new ability.

Perhaps wisely, Sony have chosen not to follow down Nokia's path of integrating a mobile phone into the mix. Fundamentally, mobile phones and media players lie at opposite ends of the portable device spectrum in terms of design and ergonomics, and some of the criticism of the design of Nokia's N-Gage is entirely on the money - it's very hard to make a good game console that is also a good phone, so you generally end up with a product that is only average in both departments.

However, would anyone be surprised if the generation of Sony Ericsson phones which appears around the same time as the PSP supports a range of link-up functionality with the device? An end-to-end chain of connectivity, from Sony's online media servers to the media centre in your living room to the media player in your bag to the phone in your pocket - it's a wet dream for technologists, media companies and consumers alike, and Sony may be closer to realising it than anyone imagines.

The real loser here, it seems, is Nintendo - whose share price fell over 10 per cent in the hours after Sony announced the PSP at its press conference the day before E3, despite the fact that the Japanese launch of the device is over 18 months off and the specifications are entirely up in the air. "Sony only needs to clear its throat and Nintendo shakes in its boots these days," one analyst commented to us in Los Angeles - but despite the utter dominance of the Japanese sales charts enjoyed by GBA software and the massive unit sales of the console, given the option of a well designed and powerful music, movie and game player in your pocket, who will really have space for a GBA SP in their daily load-out?

PlayStation 3 - The Next Really Big Thing

As interesting as the PSX and PSP announcements and the thinking behind them may be, the real meat of Sony's plans is still a relatively well-kept secret. We know what will power the PlayStation 3, and we have a rough idea of just how powerful the system will be - but the release date, design and functionality of the device remain matters of pure speculation.

One thing that is clear is that PlayStation 3 is going to be the culmination of Sony's plans in this space to date. PSone was a stellar debut in the games market, PS2 built on that success and experimented with new technologies, PSX and PSP will expand the market into new spaces - but PlayStation 3 will be the real deal, standing on the shoulders of those giants and making a serious bid to own the space underneath the world's televisions.

So, what do we know about PS3 from a technical perspective? Well, for a start, it will be based on the Cell microprocessor, which is described as a "supercomputer on a chip" and has been co-developed by IBM, Toshiba and Sony as a next-generation chip for consumer devices. Manufacturing of Cell processors is expected to start seriously over the coming 18 months, although Sony's new fabrication plant for the chip, located in the Nagasaki Prefecture of Japan, probably won't come online until 2006 at the earliest.

Cell is expected to power a range of devices, from mobile devices (PSP 2?) to home entertainment systems and set-top boxes. Although the hyperbole which SCE is wont to spin around all of its new technologies has led to a certain level of suspicion about Cell (and occasionally, cynical if somewhat unfounded accusations that the "mythical" processor is a red herring), the fact is that it's a fairly well understood piece of technology - no more mysterious than the PS2's "Emotion Engine" core, which for all the marketing spin surrounding it pre-launch, was little more than a relatively normal MIPS CPU with some extra instructions tacked on.

Cell, similarly, is a speedy piece of silicon which marks not so much a revolution as an evolution from the types of chip that the companies involved in its development have previously created. The really interesting thing about the chip is that it's been designed to operate in a cluster of similar devices, with an architecture that scales up to accomodate multiple Cell CPUs working in tandem. Of course, you can do that with standard PC chips - many large servers have multiple CPUs, and dual-processor PCs are becoming more popular in the enthusiast market (having been a core part of Apple's line-up for some time), but all the evidence suggests that Cell is uniquely capable in this respect.

PlayStation 3 is expected to sport multiple Cell chips - at least four, and perhaps as many as eight of the devices, quite possibly all nestled on the same piece of silicon. From a development perspective, the transition to writing PS3 code from PS2 code will be a huge one; this isn't a continuation of the same sort of architecture that the PS2 used at all, but like PS2, is a completely new platform for developers to learn. However, it should be noted that parallel processing is a fairly well understood branch of computer science, so while developers may struggle to get to grips with the system initially, it is unlikely to continue the PS2's reputation for being an incredibly tricky machine to develop on.

In terms of the marketing of the device, two different approaches exist for Sony. The company must decide whether the platform is going to be a single integrated device, bringing together both the media centre capabilities of the PSX and the hardcore games console sensibilities of the PS2. This seems the most likely outcome - a single PlayStation media centre device which plays games, movies and music, accesses broadband content and interfaces with portable devices (like PSP), mobile phones and any other relevant gadgets.

However, the company could equally decide to produce a family of PlayStation products, all inter-compatible and based on the same Cell architecture. A stripped down console-only version, similar to the PS2, would appeal to hardcore gamers; a fully specced media centre version would appeal to the same market that PSX targets. Other versions of the console might offer different subsets of the available functionality, depending on where Sony recognises demand for specific types of PlayStation device. In an ideal world for Sony executives, the question asked when you go to buy a new piece of consumer electronics will not be whether you want a PlayStation, but which PlayStation you want.

The question most people really want an answer to regards the launch date of the device, but this is one card Sony is playing very close to its chest indeed. A number of factors will affect this date, not least the availability of Cell - the processor is not expected to be manufactured in high volumes until 2006, although reasonable volumes (perhaps enough for a launch in Japan) may well be available in 2005.

Sony will almost certainly be beaten to market by Nintendo, but Nintendo has no aspirations to creating media centre devices, and as such can probably co-exist happily with its Japanese rival. Microsoft's position, on the other hand, is more difficult. Basing the Xbox on PC technology makes it very developer friendly, but it also cripples the company's options in terms of hardware and makes the manufacturing costs of the console extremely high throughout its lifespan. A difficult balancing act faces Microsoft with the Xbox 2. The PlayStation 3, like its predecessors, will inevitably be ahead of the PC hardware available at the time, so if Microsoft launches ahead of the PS3, it may well find itself underpowered compared with Sony's offering - but if it allows Sony to gain a headstart, then as with the current generation of console wars, more powerful hardware may not be enough to catch up.

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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.