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PING/PONG: Sony’s Portable Strategy – NGP And The Future Of The PSP
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PING/PONG: Sony’s Portable Strategy – NGP And The Future Of The PSP

How will Sony factor into the upcoming portable face-off? We ponder their strategy through the Next Generation Portable and Xperia Play.

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In this edition of PING/PONG, your favorite blowhards Mr. Universal and John Lucas discuss Sony’s ambitious new handheld strategy with their anticipated unveiling of the next PlayStation Portable. Try your best to scale their wall of words as the world’s biggest blabbermouths flap their gums (and your sanity) about Sony’s codenamed Next Generation Portable (NGP). But worry not, as we’ll be your bellhops when you check into the connected world of PlayStation Suite featuring Xperia Play and what such a thing could mean for the future of the mobile gaming industry, as well as ruminations on Sony’s upcoming competition with Apple and Nintendo.

Verbose speculation is on order as we huff and puff and blow this house down!

Sony’s Portable Strategy

OK, let’s get into this NGP business. Sony is promising one serious powerhouse of a handheld for the holidays shopping season of 2011. To put it simply, it’s the PlayStation 3 right in your very own hands. Graphically intense with computer guts on steroids. On top of the power it promises, they give the players a multi-touch touchscreen on the front, a multi-touch touchpad on the back, Sixaxis-styled motion sensing that allows you to tilt the NGP to play the game, 2 built-in cameras on front and back, a built-in electronic compass with GPS ability, 3G capability along with Wi-Fi, and most importantly of all…TWO – count ‘em – TWO analog sticks! Sounds pricey to me. REALLY pricey. What do you think about the technological capabilities of the NGP and how do you think Sony will be able to bring all of this to market at a reasonable price?

Well, you’re right about one thing, the NGP (or whatever it ends up being called) is certainly going to be a powerhouse. It’s not going to be cheap, but I think its difficult to gauge just how pricey this beast is going to cost from its specs alone. When I see Sony employing an ARM A-9 processor in this thing I can’t help but think I know what market they’re really aiming for with this thing.

ARM processors, in case you didn’t know, provide incredible power in tight spaces, which makes them an ideal solution in both mobile phone and device platforms looking for the biggest bang for the micro-sized buck. Even Nintendo has used them before (in the DS), although I think including such a powerful 4 core chip inside the NGP signals something a bit more ambitious, especially when you factor in other key players like 3G, GPS, and the big one, Android compatibility. To me, all this points to a specific convergence of the traditional (portable) gaming console and mobile phone, which I think we need to talk about here in a bit.

And if Sony really is aiming a mobile-style product launch, its not out of the question they’d adopt a similar pricing strategy to help put the NGP into as many hands as possible. I’m thinking tiered pricing to help subsidize the initial cost of the hardware by including contractual 3G coverage up front; almost every major mobile service provider offers this, including Verizon and AT&T, to help cut costs for those pricey iPhones, iPads, Galaxy Tabs, Motorola Xooms, etc. Why not offer the NGP at discount with a paid two-year contract?

Tiered pricing? Contracts? Ouch. The dreaded “C” word. If we’re talking contracts here, just how much do you think this thing is really going to cost? Just give me something off the top of your head.

Well, when you add up all the tech Sony is squeezing into the thing, particularly that gorgeous 5” OLED screen and power approaching PlayStation 3 levels, its difficult to see a bare-bones NGP retailing for any less than $399, and that’s being generous.

If Sony does take on a mobile-style tiered pricing strategy we’ll likely see not one but several NGP ‘options’ available, with each offering a baseline ‘core’ experience (i.e. it’ll play games), as well as others offering more premium packages for those looking to cruise in the fast lane. Again, most cellphone providers offer this pricing already, and its likely we’ll see Sony adopt it to help ease the price-tag pain some are going to feel at the counter. Apple makes their iPhone/iPad phones and tablets available through carriers like this, yet offers a scaled-back iPod Touch option, too. Motorola and Samsung have priced their “iPad Killers”, the Galaxy Tab and Xoom tablets similarly. The real question is whether we’ll see a fully-stacked NGP retailing for $599 or even higher. Yes, I think we will.

Whugh! I think it’s insanity for Sony to play that game personally. The difference between NGP and those other guys is that NGP is primarily a game console/media device and the others are smartphones and tablet PCs. People make communications on their smartphones and they do more activities on tablets (which are comparable to laptops). Those devices can justify those kinds of routines. I don’t think the NGP got it like that. $399 and $599…WHEW! Those prices even hurt my great uncle on my mama’s side!

But Sony may have a backdoor entry with Sony Ericsson collaboration the Xperia Play, a handheld gaming smartphone. Looks like this should have been the next PSP to me. It even looks like a miniature PSPgo. An Xperia Play with the power of NGP would have a better chance of playing that contract game. Not to mention it would strike the perfect balance between competitors Nintendo, Apple and the rest of the mobile smartphone gang. Your thoughts on why they didn’t follow-up the PSP this way?

Well, I think they crunched the numbers and came up with a scenario (or several) that showed promise in helping them duplicate the success of their most serious competitor in the coming cycle – Apple. Nothing against Nintendo, but many of the NGP’s feature-sets, particularly Android and the the ‘virtual console’ distribution of classic PlayStation software through PlayStation Suite point to a unique partnership between Sony and Google to take on the fruit company’s near-ubiquitous control of the hearts, minds, and hands of mobile gamers. Essentially, they’ve ceded much of Nintendo’s core market to Nintendo.

As for crafting what’s possibly the most powerful portable gaming console yet, I think that’s for interoperability between the NGP + PlayStation 3 to a degree we’ve never seen before, and for sound economic reasons. When you look at escalating budgets for many of today’s biggest blockbusters, which is becoming impossible for most publishers to financially sustain with twin high-definition home consoles, its unlikely you’ll see NGP ‘ports’ of as many hit titles appearing on the platform as happened with the original PSP. The elimination of the UMD format for a more malleable flash-like alternative points to a solution involving digital sharing; not at all unlike what we regularly see with many hit Blu-ray / DVD + Digital Copy releases. Imagine purchasing a retail copy of a PlayStation 3 game and having the option to ‘copy’ and play the game right on your NGP, or possibly some version of it.

In fact, Konami’s Hideo Kojima already hinted this feature will be included in his next Metal Gear Solid game, with connectivity possibly in the fabled ‘cloud’. Anything that offers relief to beleaguered developers to not duplicate their development costs will be a welcome feature.

The PSP offered limited ‘Remote Play’ through some networked PlayStation 3 titles, so its only natural we’d see them take things one step further. So to answer your question, if Sony is looking for a (relatively) inexpensive way to put such a powerful piece of hardware into as many hands as possible while avoiding the sticker-shock scenario that scared many away (initially) from the PlayStation 3, they would have no choice but to adopt a subsidized cellular solution + scaled-down solution, which seems to have worked for their new rival, Apple.

New rival? Apple was the original rival. The PSP wanted to be what the iPod became way back in the dusty wild west days of 2003. Sony wanted this thing to be the new age Walkman. They said “the Walkman of the 21st Century” when describing the PSP. Apple has totally replaced Sony’s role in the music media sector, the sector that has defined Sony from the very beginning. When Sony was planning the PSP, they thought they would casually run over Nintendo like a minor speed bump on the way to Apple City. But they ended up failing on both fronts. After iPod fit the role PSP was seeking, Sony conceded their grasp on the entire music media scene. You knew it was final in 2006 when they abandoned their proprietary ATRAC audio format for the AAC format which is standard on Apple’s devices.

I don’t think Sony has lived that down too well. I don’t think they like being an outsider on this scene now defined by what Apple does. Sony used to be THE name when it came to these kinds of things and now they are just A name. I believe that Sony’s portable strategy is not just a response to Apple but it’s revenge AT Apple for taking their crown. But is it too late for Sony to battle the Cain Marko, the Juggernaut that is Apple today?

How many rumors have been grapevined about Apple buying out the entire Sony Corporation? Possible or not, Sony has to bring it like The People’s Champ if they really want to mix it up with the famous company named after a fruit. Price is actually less of a concern than public perception of Sony’s products. Apple can get away with pricing 64-gigabyte iPads for $829 because many people believe in their products. Sony is STILL tasting the bitterness of “599 U.S. dollars” for the PS3. What I’m saying is that the “cool” factor is needed for Sony’s multi-pronged portable strategy to even dent what Apple has achieved. Form factor ain’t helping the NGP when the iPods and iPhones are so sleek, slim, and slip-able into a pocket.

Well, if they are positioning the NGP as a true rival for Apple’s iDevices, they’ve snagged the best possible ally in Google, who’s own Android OS puts them in the same sphere of influence, and certainly the most capable. If the PlayStation Suite software platform – and by extension, the new Xperia Play controls – give Android devices a much-needed boost in the mobile gaming market, then Android gives Sony a much-needed boost in digital distribution in ways their own PSN Store has failed to. Let’s not forget their version of the ‘app’, the PlayStation Mini, was largely a failure, and connection to Android’s 100+ million devices (which include cellphones, tablets, and soon, your kitchen appliances…no joke) is a major advantage to going solo in a world that increasingly relies on brand-awareness and identification.

Again, I think Sony’s made a strategic – and possibly precocious – decision to side-step the battle against Nintendo (and the 3DS), and this could prove to be their saving grace. The more I see of the 3DS platform, the less impressed I am. Nintendo recently confirmed that 3DS software, even first-party titles, will cost at least $39, with some titles expecting to run even higher at $49. That’s an awful lot of money to pay for a singular game that only runs on one piece of hardware, which only heightens the potential brilliance of piggybacking onto Google’s increasingly popular Android platform. A smart combination of PlayStation 3-compatible titles alongside all-digital titles (both full-featured and micro-sized) could make for a powerful argument that, despite its higher initial price, the NGP could end up being the more affordable investment for gamers.

Yeah, I’m not a fan of these pricier and pricier situations either. I’m still in pain from the $250 price for the 3DS to begin with. But whether or not Sony thinks NGP is ultimately for competing against Apple, they are most likely going to be in competition with Nintendo like it or not. That speed bump metaphor I brought up earlier. This is what happened last time Sony thought they could overlook Nintendo trying to catch Apple in the distance. And it cost them twice losing to both iPod AND DS.

When I look at the NGP, I still see the PSP. And regardless of all the snazzy jazzy features the PSP had, it still was seen as a handheld gaming console. Not that 21st century Walkman thing it was aspiring to be. I believe the NGP will also be seen as a handheld gaming console at the root and I don’t believe I’m going to be the only one who sees it this way. If that’s the case, then Nintendo’s price may look good by comparison as sad as that may be.

Just like last time with the PSP, Sony doesn’t seem to have a focus on this NGP situation. Trying to be all things to all people is hard to do. Sometimes you need to sacrifice that artificial favor and be true to yourself gaining the genuine favor. Nintendo will do what it always does. Gaming. That’s the main purpose behind each and every one of their machines. They got a little jazz and razzmatazz but they have the focus to remember what they’re here for. Jack of all trades or Master of one. If Sony’s strategy doesn’t hit the Apple mark, will they have what it takes to match the Nintendo mark?

Well, again, I’m not convinced that Sony is even concerned with Nintendo this time around, and whether or not that turns out to be a miscalculation on their part remains to be seen. I do agree, however, that when I look at the totality of the NGP and what Sony is trying to accomplish with it, I see shades of the original PSP and that platform’s mission statement: total media convergence in one device. But that game plan was intended for 2004/5, and while the PSP and all its might bells ‘n whistles weren’t able to pull it off, I’d argue Apple and its iOS platform (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) have, and then some.

Perhaps Sony’s biggest issue wasn’t the mission, but the timing. Despite whatever reservations I may have and what’s bound to be a misinterpreted pricing scheme (count on it), the NGP or whatever it ends up being intrigues me. I think 2011 will probably go down as the year when our preconceptions about the mobile market – gaming included – shifts dramatically. Frankly, its about time.

About the Author: Popzara Press