The PlayStation Platform: Sony's real next-gen console

Sony's PS3 Slimmer refresh and PSP/PS Vita announcements indicate that Sony is using their current hardware as a multi-pronged opening for the next-generation platform wars.
During Sony's pre-Tokyo Game Show press conference, company representatives announced a slimmer PlayStation 3 model, PS Vita-PS3 connectivity features, a few games and a price cut for the PSP -- plus a few minor items on their PlayStation Network and and PlayStation Mobile platforms. Taken individually, each item doesn't sound particularly exciting (especially this far into a console cycle, when everyone is waiting for hints of the next-generation entries from Sony and Microsoft). But read between the lines, and you'll see that Sony is setting the tone for the next platform wars—wars which will be fought not just in home consoles, but in mobile computing platforms and entertainment apps on set-top boxes.

Current-gen tech, next-gen platform

If you were underwhelmed by Sony's announcements today (perhaps because you were hoping for a surprise PS4 preview), you may have missed the point: "the console wars" is an antiquated idea as of the current generation, where Apple and Nintendo managed to carve out new market niches with innovative hardware and software at lower price points and left Microsoft and Sony to fight over the core audience. Since the last console cycle started, we've seen mobile/social games on smartphones and tablets eat at the dedicated portable console market, a resurgent PC games market attract higher-end core audiences, and lower-end consoles (the Wii) and media-streaming set-top boxes lure away more casual, general-entertainment audiences. In order for Sony to succeed, it needs more than just a strong flagship home console -- it needs a strong presence in each of these areas. And Sony is building that presence by strategically positioning its existing hardware (PS3, PSP, PS Vita) in order to build that next-gen platform well before a PlayStation 4 ever comes out.

Why the PS3 Slimmer matters

The redesigned PS3 reinforces the message Sony has already sent; namely, that we're going to be in this console cycle for a little while longer. With the previous generation, Sony found that the PS2 sold very well even after the PS3 had already launched -- most likely due to its excellent library, brand strength, and the PS3's remarkably high initial price point. Consumers who weren't interested in Blu-ray, entertainment apps, and the latest-and-greatest games would buy the PS2 instead. With the PS3 Slimmer, Sony can position the refreshed PS3 console as the lower-end buy-in to the PlayStation Platform once the PS4 is already out -- somewhat equivalent to the iPod Touch's place in Apple's mobile device array. With the PS3's launch, Sony learned that there are plenty of consumers out there who want PlayStation games without paying a premium for the newest stuff; this time, however, the PS3 can still be those people's cheaper portals to the vast library of existing PS3 content (including PS3 disc and downloadable games, access to Sony's other media channels, back catalogues, etc.). Essentially, Sony can use the PS3 as a way to attract new customers at lower price points, draw them into the PlayStation Platform, and once they're invested in Sony's hardware and media, it'll be easier to upsell those PS3 owners on a PS Vita or a PS4 later on -- just like Apple does with its iOS and Mac lines. And if the PS3 gets significantly cheaper after a PS4 release, it could be within a price range that makes it competitive with standalone set-top boxes like the Roku or Apple TV as well, especially considering its relatively large hard drive size is great for consumers who are just as interested in the PS3's media center functions as they would be in its game library.

PS Vita vs. the Wii U

Despite the fact that the main announcement during today's conference was the new PS3 redesign, most of the show was about the Vita -- several new game announcements, a brief rehash of the Cross Connect feature that lets you use the Vita's touchscreen and camera with the PS3, and a few demos of intriguing apps (live streaming via Nico Nico Douga and comic book reader apps, for example). Certainly, the new core-friendly PS Vita titles might sell a few more consoles to the few enthusiasts who are still willing to shell out for a dedicated portable game device, but it can't be a secret to anyone at Sony that such devices are on the way out thanks to smartphones and tablets. But the real point here is that the features that connect the Vita to the PS3 (Cross Buy and Cross Control, for example) are aimed at turning the six-year-old console into a challenger for the Wii U's early next-gen experience. PlayStation 3 owners could spend the $300 on a new Wii U, or they could replicate the experience by pairing their PS3 with a PS Vita for a few bucks less instead. This move might not shut Nintendo out completely, but if it puts a dent in the Wii U's initial uptake (especially among consumers who purchased a Wii and found that they never ended up playing it after the novelty of Wii Sports wore off), that might be all Sony needs to nudge the Wii U down the way of the Dreamcast once Sony's ready to release a proper PlayStation successor.

PSP and PS Mobile: The low-impact mobile strategy

The last prong of Sony's next-gen platform strategy, of course, is mobile. The PS Vita is most likely not a serious challenger to the smartphone-tablet market, but it doesn't have to be. Instead, PlayStation Mobile is a low-risk way for Sony to bring cheaper, bite-sized games worthy of the PlayStation brand to several Android devices (as well as the Vita, naturally). This could help solve Android game developers' problems with making money on Google Play and players' problems finding the good stuff on Google Play, and if it doesn't, well, at least Sony can use it to build a mobile presence without practically starting one from scratch (see Windows Phone 7 and 8). PS Mobile is meant to attract more casual audiences. Even the venerable PSP is sticking around, with a price cut and a few new titles for folks who want that low-cost option for portable PlayStation-quality games.

Meet the new PlayStation, same as the old PlayStation

No, today's announcements weren't sexy, but beneath the relative lack of glitz and glam lies a Sony that appears to better understand its position in the market -- and how it can potentially leverage that position into the center of the next big round of platform wars. By cleverly positioning the PS3, PS Vita, PSP, PS Mobile as a platform with internal synergy -- something like a "set bonus", if you think about it -- Sony is trying to transform its hardware and software offerings into something new without necessarily having to build something new. Each of these announcements point towards a more-savvy Sony that understands that the power of its brand has to be more powerful than the power of each of its hardware platforms; PlayStation on your TV, on your phone, in your backpack, and so on. Or, as Sony PlayStation group CEO Andrew House put it, "All day PlayStation, every day PlayStation."

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