I argued on Wednesday that Microsoft has good reason to make the current generation of systems persist as long as possible, and I reckon Sony is thinking along similar lines. The PlayStation 3 arrived at the same time as the Wii in 2006 but nearly a year after Xbox 360. Sony led the way in the previous generation-in the preceding five years Sony sold about twice as many PlayStation 2 systems than its competitors sold Xboxes and GameCubes combined-but had its work cut out to catch up with Microsoft's early head start in the current one.
However, Sony had an important advantage. By biding its time, it was able to release what was-and still is-the most powerful living room game console ever created in the form of PlayStation 3. It had the most raw horsepower, the most storage, built-in HDMI and Wi-Fi connectivity, and, perhaps most importantly, it was one of the first-and best-Blu-ray movie players on the market.
Of course, this tech came with a hefty price tag: US$600 for the deluxe model. And-thanks largely to those extremely pricey Blu-ray components-word had it that Sony was losing a bundle on each unit sold. It was a mighty machine, to be sure, but its high price caused the PlayStation 3 to stumble out of the gate. After leading the market for ten years, Sony suddenly found itself in third place in worldwide hardware sales-a position which, with 47 million systems sold as of the New Year, it retains to this day.
As the years passed, Sony, like Microsoft, rolled out a steady stream of firmware and hardware updates and upgrades designed to decrease costs, improve the user experience, and increase the platform's lifespan. Most-like an improved online PlayStation Store, support for third-party video services, a subscription plan called PlayStation Plus that conferred discounts and bonus content to those who signed up, and refreshed hardware in the from of the smaller and less expensive PlayStation "slim"-were greatly appreciated by Sony's customers, though some changes-such as the discontinuation of Linux support and the abandonment of backwards compatibility in newer systems-rankled a few feathers in the PlayStation community.
The changes haven't been as extreme as those the Xbox 360 underwent-even last fall's PlayStation Move control system felt familiar, largely because players had already experienced the Wii's remote and nunchuk controllers, which were similar in design-but gradual changes have resulted in PlayStation 3 gamers experiencing a greater sense of stability and continuity through the system's life.
It may have had a slow start, but thanks to price drops and perseverance the PlayStation 3 is now experiencing steady, healthy sales with spurts of growth. And with each console sold comes a new software buyer, which is where the real money in the games business has always been. So, after all the hard work and investment put into PlayStation 3, it's time for Sony to spend a couple of years reaping the profits. That means the Japanese company is perfectly happy to ride the crest of this generation for as long as it feasibly can.
But don't be fooled; Sony will not come to market behind Microsoft, its primary competitor for hardcore gamer dollars. Sony and Microsoft may not be as motivated to launch a new platform as speedily as Nintendo, but Sony will work to ensure that its next platform arrives in the same season as Microsoft's, if not sooner. That makes me think we'll see PlayStation 4 in 2013. That said, if Sony feels certain Microsoft won't roll out its next console until even later, it may follow suit.
Since it's likely at least a couple of years away, predicting what Sony's next platform will be like is difficult-at least aside from general prophecies about transistor sizes and processor speeds that I haven't the technical experience to make.
So let's examine something more concrete: Content delivery.
Of the three big game hardware manufacturers Sony conducted the boldest experiment in purely digital distribution 16 months ago with the PSPgo, a handheld system that relies entirely on downloadable content. It has not performed well in any market. This suggests that, for a wide variety of reasons (a few of which I mentioned in the second part of this series) people aren't yet ready to give up on disc-based games. I suspect PlayStation 4 will likely offer a robust online store at which consumers can purchase anything in digital format that's available on disc-something they cannot do with the PlayStation 3-but it will assuredly also sport the latest generation Blu-ray technology.