Designing a handheld game console, especially if you are Sony, is a tough call. You will have to come up with a device that challenges the dominance of Nintendo's DS and Nintendo's already legendary talent to attract consumers of all ages. True to Sony's approach, the PSP would have to be higher end than the DS. There is also new competition from the side of smartphones, devices that are now selling more than 50 million units every quarter, if we look at Android and the iPhone alone, and have the clear attention of developers.
Then there is Windows Phone 7, which had disappointing sales so far, but is clearly positioned as an extension of the Xbox 360 as well. Sony even plans to release a Playstation phone with the Xperia Play. What kind of device to you design and build in such a competitive scenario? How can a mobile game console be different from phones that are powerful enough to power high-resolution screens and run impressive 3D games?
Personally, I would have made the bet that Sony would extend its ubiquitous 3D story to the PSP 2, for reasons of platform consistency alone. The company recently filed a naked eye 3D patent and I have no doubt that there is enough knowledge and know-how to build a mobile 3D console. Despite all the criticism and claims that 3D is too hard on your eyes, even damaging for younger children, 3D has a certain appeal. It may not be selling in TVs today, but Nintendo is already dominating the best seller lists on Walmart.com and Amazon.com with its $250 3DS, due on March 27 in the U.S. It turns out that Sony had reasons not to go 3D and looked for different ways to push the next PSP to the high end.
It is impressive to see what you can pack into a small handheld today - a quad-core processor, a decent graphics engine to power a 960x544 pixel display, GPS, gyroscope, two cameras, etc. But powerful hardware may not be the technology that is going to play a role in winning or losing the battle. In virtually any type of gaming, we are now questioning the way how we interface with a game, how we control a game. Look at the Wii controller, Kinect, or PSP Move. Even the gyroscope approach in modern smartphones. There is a substantial change going on. Sony is following this trend, but has added a twist - an ingenious twist: The backside touchpad. Where Microsoft has disappointed with a simple me-too product (WP7), Sony has found a way to differentiate itself with a backside touchpad. The company has already filed a patent for the technology and the document is an interesting read, if you want to know how Sony intends to leverage the backside touchpad - and move it to cellphones as well.
In some cases, it may actually be more convenient to control a screen from the back, as this would allow you to naturally cradle a device in your hand. I hope that Sony does not go overboard with this idea, but I am glad to see that there are still companies who can come up with their own ideas and not rely on Apple.
A missing 3D feature could be a gap in Sony's product strategy and the fact that it is not included in this device could even hint to a slight switch in how Sony intends to distribute 3D content. Perhaps it isn't a big deal in the long run and given the hardware horsepower of the PSP 2, a 3D screen should not be impossible to add later on in the lifecycle of the device.
We should also remember that, while the new PSP will have a much crisper display, it will not be the high-resolution screen and the display itself that will lose or win the battle. It will be content, accessibility and the control interface. Sony will still need true killer apps for the PSP 2, but if this new device is priced in the neighborhood of the 3DS and the value of 3D games will get old at some point, Sony has a good shot at making a greater impact than it has with the original PSP.
A high-end game console always tends to attract hardcore gamers and there are fewer of those than casual or general gamers. However, Nintendo is taking a certain risk with the 3DS by taking it upmarket - and cut out quite a bit of its customer base. All my kids have their own DS consoles, but I won't be buying them $250 game consoles. This seems to be a device that caters at least to older teenagers than kids and there could be a chance that Sony is suddenly much more competitive as Nintendo is invading its turf. Even if the PSP's superior graphics did not win any battle in the last generation handheld game console, it may score in the higher-end market.
This is the best product I have seen from Sony since the original Playstation.