The PSP2 and the Return of Sony

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In a fluorescent-lit room in an office complex of the Minato Ward, a Sony engineer is putting the finishing touches on a prototype PSP2. Have the lessons learned from the first PSP changed the shape of the plasticine maquettes on his desk? Has the success of its competitors, the nimble, toyish Nintendo DS or the iPhone—hardly a traditional gaming device at all!—affected the chips he chooses to solder into a virtual breadboard? Will his PSP2 even see the light of day?

It's the wrong time for Sony to launch a PSP2. The economy is the dumps. Sony has posted a $1.12 billion loss, its first in 14 years. But they must also be looking towards the future, making tough decisions about whether they should remain in the gaming space at all.

I don't think there's much doubt they will. Sony, after all, has never lacked for stubbornness and pride.

So what should Sony's next portable gaming device be? A phone? An all-singing, all-dancing convergence device of the future? Or a pared down device that does gaming—and only gaming—as perfectly as possible?

“If you wait to do everything until you're sure it's right, you'll probably never do much of anything.” – Win Borden, senator sentenced to 2 years and 3 months for failure to file tax returns

Sony has always had a problem with convergence, in that it does it poorly. That's because the company, despite attempts by its latest CEO to bring the company in line, still operates as the prototypical engineer-led Japanese company, a field of silent ivory silos that rarely communicate as a whole. One division of the company might make a camera with a web browser in it, while another might make a camera for the PSP, while yet another sells cameras that connect to their laptops— none of which can actually communicate with other Sony devices. It must be a herculean challenge for a company that makes products in nearly every consumer electronics category to coordinate and executive as a collective whole, but it should not be impossible, even in notoriously regimented Japanese corporate culture. Difficulty does not excuse a failure to meet the challenge.

The problem with the PSP and the PS3 has not been that Sony made a stab at building quality convergence devices—they've just been trying to build too many. It's hard to believe that you should buy a do-everything devices when the same company sells a dozen different do-everything models. Why would Sony, makers of the world's finest Blu-ray player, bother to sell anything other than the PS3 at all?

The PlayStation 3 is nearly perfect as a set-top box, a powerful gaming machine that doubles as one of the most connected media players available. And it's getting trashed in the market by the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii because many customers, when looking at the three units on the shelf, don't see it as a media wunderkreiger, but instead as the least interesting gaming box of the three.Wasn't this about the PSP?
The PSP has actually done relatively well for itself when it comes to hardware sales, with an estimated lifetime sales of around 44 million units. Think about that one for a moment: a company that has sold 44 million units of one of its premier products may still be considered by some to be failing. That's in large part due to perception—we tend to think of the markets in broad terms, with simple winners and losers, and rarely do you see someone win as decisively as Nintendo has done with the Wii and the DS—and in part due to software sales, which in every part of the world outside of Japan, where the Monster Hunter series sees multi-million sales on the PSP, have a relatively low "attachment" rate (the number of games sold per console sold).

Nintendo has sold nearly 98 million DS handhelds in nearly the same amount of time. And there's a surprise contender in the handheld gaming space: Apple, who has sold around 17 million iPhones, as well as several million iPod touch units, all of which are extremely capable handheld gaming machines. Attachment rates for iPhone games from the iTunes App Store are presumably high, with numbers like a million downloads a day being touted, although it's anyone's guess on exactly how those split between free and paid applications. Nevertheless, that Apple has created an inadvertent third mobile gaming platform has surely not been missed by Sony brass.

Closer than you'd think
Why isn't the PSP perceived to be a success, then? Let's consider the many ways in which it is a failure as both a convergence and a pure gaming device, and why a relatively low-powered dual-screen oddity and a phone that has effectively no buttons at all get all the attention.

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The PSP's hardware is magnificent. I will never forget the first time I booted my launch day PSP in a cab taking me home in the early morning after an entire night spent waiting in line at Sony's New York City launch festivities. I was prepared to be disappointed, but I warmed to the beautiful graphics from the huge, bright screen instantly. That technological frisson that every properly designed gadget attempts to provoke was unmistakable, that taste of the future that early adopters spend so much time and money trying to capture. The following weeks found me showing it off to everyone I could, all of whom were dutifully impressed, but very rarely compelled to buy a PSP themselves.

I suspect that was in part due to Sony's inability to make products that don't appear to be exquisite but fragile. The PSP very much feels like a stereotypical product from Japan, bedizened with buttons and switches, and even ejecting from its aluminum cradle an exotic optical disc. (Ignore that that optical disc, the proprietary, slow, and expensive UMD, was obsolesced by flash memory nearly before the PSP was even on the street.) It's sexy in its way, but it doesn't feel disposable: a quality welcome in previous times, but daunting in something that comes with an implicit possibility of loss.

Worse, luxury electronics, from a school of design for which Sony is in part responsible but was always a ruse in the best of times, are increasingly being seen as gussied up branding exercises borne from the same assembly lines as the "bargain" versions. People aren't afraid to buy something cheap anymore, so long as it works, and so long as it will be easily replaced when it's dropped in the toilet or left in a cab.

It was also too big. The PSP doesn't fit in the pocket. It needs a case or cover to protect the screen (unlike the DS, whose cockamamie fold-in-half clamshell ended up obviating the need for armor). A device that can't live comfortable in the front pocket of jeans is ultimately too large to be carried as part of someone's everyday default load-out. Even the DS is slightly too large.

That vaunted and welcome 3D power that makes portable gaming on the PSP look better than any other mobile gaming system ever? It eats a lot of power. Battery life for the PSP is actually fairly good, all power drains considered, but a single standard battery won't fill your cross-country trip with movies and games. (To be fair, battery life is an issue for nearly every modern gadget.)

And the 3D power that makes the PSP stand out was hobbled by Sony's curious decision to include only one analog input, a rather ingenious nubbin on the left hand side of the face, making the dual-analog control scheme for 3D games—a now-standard interface that Sony themselves pioneered on the PlayStation—impossible.

UMD was slow, expensive, and literally just months from being superfluous. The future of portable media is flash memory, end of discussion, and even replaceable media like SD cards will leave the mainstream in a few years. Terribly, it had to be physically spun up to operate, another battery-taxing chore.

Because the games were so similar to home console experiences, many developers neglected to design the games with the mobile player in mind. Many mobile games are played for just seconds at a time, in snatched moments in queues and on lunch breaks. The PSP could go into a sleep mode, provided you had enough battery to keep it slumbering without slipping fully into unconsciousness, but many of the games themselves did not have save functions that could be accessed at any time. Want to stop playing your game for a bit and listen to some MP3s? Too bad—unless you want to play for another ten minutes to discover a save point.

Not that you'd want to use it as an MP3 player. Not because the PSP's MP3 support is poor—it's actually quite good, and as a podcast slurper it's phenomenal—but that pesky pocket problem literally pokes its head up. And with full acknowledgement of how haughty this sounds, it's sort of embarrassing to listen to MP3s out of something so large, like carrying around a portable DVD player so you can listen to CDs.

Video support? Fantastic—if you could encode your own movies. The movies-on-UMD plan was silly from the start by dint of pricing alone. No one wanted to pay DVD prices for movies they could only watch on a single device—without special features.

While it may seem odd already to imagine a time when devices were sold without Wi-Fi, that the PSP could use wireless networks to communicate and even browse the internet was a definite selling point in 2005. But no touchscreen and no keyboard—despite rumors for years that Sony themselves would release a QWERTY attachment—made the PSP a rather pitiful mobile computer. Baffling. With just a nice QWERTY keyboard addition, I could have done the majority of my mobile computing on the PSP years ago. Now smartphones and netbooks have closed that door behind them.

Piracy was easy, although not really easy, depending at which stage of the PSP's life you consider. While I'm not inclined to discount piracy's effect on sales out of hand—nor am I inclined to think there's really all that much to be done about it—one of the surprise strengths of the powerful PSP platform ended up being its utility as one of the best retro-gaming emulation machines of all time. While anecdotes are not data, among my gamer friends a PSP is more often a portable Super Nintendo with a complete library always at hand, with more hours given to 15-year-old titles than modern ones. That may help hardware sales and doesn't even directly hurt software sales, but it doesn't help, either.

It's hard to read Sony's blustery "Games aren't selling because of pirates" comments for the last couple years, coupled with their bizarre hardware revision choices, and not think they just got so swept up in fighting hackers and pirates that they lost site of the bigger picture.

The lack of development on the PSP is due in part to the cost of making a 3D game, a more expensive endeavor than creating the art and assets for a 2D title. With more than twice as many DS and iPhones out there owned by gamers proven to spend money, it makes more fiscal sense for a developer to bet their sweat and money on a 2D title that can, after all, still be ported to the PSP.

On their own, none of these are critical flaws. The PSP may instead be suffering death by a dozen cuts.

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Stronger, better, smaller, faster, something, something, everything
Here's what the next PSP should be: an iPhone with buttons.

Sure, it can be slightly wider, but only by millimeters, not centimeters. Same goes for thickness to accommodate shoulder buttons and the largest battery Sony can cram inside. But it should be an attempt at the ultimate convergence device for Sony, one that take all the same risks that Sony tried to make with the original PSP, but going even further. So much further, in fact, that it would shake the fundamental way Sony has sold products in the past.

The next PSP should be a fantastic point-and-shoot camera and camcorder.

The next PSP should be a top-quality GPS unit for both pedestrians and drivers. (Without buying an additional module.)

The next PSP should have a touchscreen.

The next PSP should have accelerometers and a compass.

The next PSP should come with a great web browser.

The next PSP should be offered in two flavors: one with a phone inside, one without.

The next PSP should be able to download and purchase games over-the-air via 3G or Wi-Fi, saved to copious internal flash memory. (Something the current PSP is finally seeing in part through the PlayStation Network, but perhaps Sony should abandon retail entirely. It's worked for the iPhone, Gamestop and Wal-Mart be damned.)

The next PSP should be Sony's best mobile gaming device. (Although it need not be much more powerful computationally than the current PSP.)

The next PSP should cost $500—or $200 when subsidized by wireless carrier.

Luck never gives; it only lends.
Sony needs to go all in. Convergence is a bear. A bear that, when you've just about wrestled it into submission, grows another couple of arms holding pico-projectors and a WiMAX chip. But it's where gadgets are going, like it or not, and while it may take another decade or two for all of the aspects to come into their own (see: the iPhone's horrible but heavily used camera) the opportunity exists for companies to rise to the challenge of making miraculous do-everything magic pocket lumps.

If anyone has the engineering talent to do it, it's Sony. But they'll have to change the way the company works, forcing product groups to march in step—or at least communicate. Can you imagine the product that Sony could make if even a quarter of their engineers dropped all the dabbling and worked on a single product together? Sure, they might only be able to release eight car stereos this year instead of ten, but somehow I think they'd be able to keep sales up across every category.

This isn't out of reach for Sony. In fact it's already in their blood—the company that makes the Vaio P isn't afraid to try to make products that straddle category boundaries. (Nor are they afraid to charge twice as much as their competitors to do so.) But Sony, like so many other successful organizations, has become victim to their own illusions of their strengths, thinking they could grow only laterally. That may work with televisions and amplifiers, but it's not going to cut it in the fight to become the one thing people keep in their pocket at all times.

So while I know there are PSP2 prototypes on little pedestals all throughout Sony right now, I sincerely hope they exist outside of the gaming division and instead are spread throughout the entire company. Some of the world's best engineers work at Sony—it's time to make them work together.

Photo: afsilva

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