PlayStation 3 delayed, unlikely to matter

So, the news out of Japan this morning is pretty much what sophisticated analysts and game players were expecting for months: contrary to Sony’s numerous promises, the PlayStation 3 (PS3) won’t be released in Spring 2006 after all. Now the company’s planning a November 2006 release – a full year after Microsoft’s much-discussed launch of the Xbox 360.

That’s right: a full year. In the right console maker’s hands, lots can happen in a year – a big sales lead can be built up over your competitors, you can ready stellar second-generation games, and you can make real efforts at convincing the media that anything that comes later is irrelevant. But let’s be realistic here: we’re talking about Microsoft. By mid-2006, the company’s likely to have sold around 5 million total Xbox 360s, which is a nice start, but frankly one that Sony could easily catch up to – at the right price, and assuming it has enough PS3 consoles ready to meet expected demand. Click on Read More for the details.

The stories right now claim that Sony is currently manufacturing a million PlayStation 3s a month in anticipation of a global November rollout; if accurate, that means 7 or 8 million machines could be ready on launch day. To step back for a moment, that’s 7 or 8 million Blu-Ray Disc-playing, undeniably-most-powerful (by at least a little) game consoles. True, these special features mightn’t matter in the end. In fact, they’re directly to blame for the system’s delays – Blu-Ray copyright protection is still being finalized, claims Sony – and there’s considerable debate over their value to developers relative to the Xbox 360’s more familiar design.

But in our view, many consumers think these features are worth waiting for, and because of that, Sony has a much better chance of actually selling every one of its machines than Microsoft did, even assuming its price is higher than some may hope. Unlike Microsoft, which could barely conjure interest in Japan despite aggressive promotional efforts, Sony will eat that country alive – and certainly create sell-out lines at virtually every store across the United States and Europe, as well. Thus, in a single day, Sony could conceivably match or exceed Xbox 360’s entire global installed base, mooting Microsoft’s year lead.

How realistic is this? Well, it assumes a lot. Microsoft will have to seriously squander 2006, which it has previously demonstrated is more than possible from both hardware and software standpoints. Sony will need to hit a reasonable price, though the exact number is subject to some debate given that Microsoft has demonstrated that at least some people are willing to shell out up to $400 to be first to own a new game console. And, of course, Sony will need to actually have the supplies on hand in November to make this happen. So many launches these days are being ruined (read: people unable to buy at set price) by manufacturing difficulties, and PS3’s at least as likely to suffer from this as anything else. If Sony drops the ball and misses its new date, that’s bad news.

What doesn’t Sony need? If history’s a guide, excellent exclusive launch software. Almost every console launch depends on this, but Sony has proved almost immune to this particular need because people are willing to believe – rightfully, as it turns out – that good games will eventually appear on a PlayStation. They’re even willing to stand in line for the machines (PS2, PSP) even when their first six months of releases don’t look so exciting. If Sony can actually deliver three or four wicked-looking titles for launch, and an aggressive price tag? Absolute mayhem.

Last year really wasn’t good for Sony. It screwed up in many ways that have been well-documented at this point, losing the MP3 player market to Apple, falling behind in the handheld market to the Nintendo DS (!), and coming across as generally incapable of enunciating its vision going forward. But based on this ambitious agenda – coupled with the news that Sony will be selling Internet-downloadable PlayStation 1 games that will run on the PlayStation Portable (PSP), and plans both handheld video-conferencing and limited GPS support for that device – it looks like there may be reason to get excited about the company again. Readers, what do you think?

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