Sony's New PlayStation Puts iPhone Circus In Perspective

The Japanese electronics maker clearly wants to strike while the VR iron is hot

08/09/2016 9:26 AM IST | Updated 08/09/2016 9:45 AM IST
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

So, a momentous thing happened on Wednesday in the U.S. with the release of a landmark new product by one of the world's leading technology companies.

Sure, sure, Apple introduced yet another iPhone (yawn). What we're talking about is Sony's unveiling of a new PlayStation, which is a far less common event than Apple's annual circus.

What's interesting about the PlayStation 4 Pro is not so much the tech specs worthy of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, but the speed of its development. Three years after the PS4 debuted, Sony brought out this souped-up version to help juice gaming sales.

Compare that to the 12-year life cycle Bloomberg Intelligence estimates for the PS2 (released in 2000) and nine years for the PS3 (2006), and you can see how bold it is for Sony to come out with an update of its iconic console before most people have even had a chance to finish Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.

There are two main reasons for the hurry. First, the company wants to get people onto higher-end games that can make full use of 4K display resolutions , and in so doing bet that its base of 60 million monthly active users will spend more time playing and spending, thereby offsetting a decline in hardware sales.

While the PlayStation console is the headline act, it's actually games, subscriptions and other services that generate more revenue. Where users see a device sitting next to their TV, Sony sees a cash register ready to ring up sales.

At the same time, Sony is also in the early throes of a battle that could be bigger than either role-playing or first-person-shooter games, and that's virtual reality. Competitors in this space include Facebook's Oculus and HTC's Vive with a winner yet to be crowned. What VR needs to make each of these headsets usable are computers with high-end graphics chips that can deliver intense, real-time images to users' eyeballs, and which neither Facebook nor HTC make.

If you think of the computer as the last mile in the VR ecosystem -- and a games console as nothing more than a powerful graphics processor wrapped in a pretty black box -- then Sony has a leg up on its competitors. It can offer the hardware (VR headset), the last mile (console) and the service (a games network).

By introducing a new PlayStation so soon after the initial PS4 release, Sony risks annoying a fan base that isn't accustomed to smartphone-paced obsolescence (never mind that at $399 the Pro is cheaper than an iPhone). The Japanese electronics maker clearly wants to strike while the VR iron is hot, so it's made the strategic decision to roll out its last-mile infrastructure in a blitzkrieg move that will leave the competition flat-footed.

For many gamers, it's likely that 4K-resolution graphics will be an early drawcard, helping to drive hardware sales and pump up network revenue. By placing a powerful computer in as many lounge rooms as possible, Sony is laying the groundwork for a very real victory.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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