"It only does everything," says the ad for Sony's PlayStation 3 game console. The console plays Blu-Ray games, HD movies, and downloadable classic games, plus it browses the Internet and plays music. About the only thing it can't do is make cappuccino.
It's pretty clear that Sony wants you to have a PS3 in your living room. But in your pocket? Sony's got at least three contenders for you to choose from, with a fourth on its way this holiday season. All of them promise "PlayStation" games, but none of them are quite compatible with each other.
The device(s) that only do(es) everything
Your first two choices are the PlayStation Portable, or PSP, and its download-only sibling, the PSP Go. But now Sony's released a new mobile device, called the Xperia Play. And it looks remarkably like the PSP Go -- it even has the Go's slide-out game controller.
Like the Go, the Xperia Play can't run the UMD disc format used by older PSP consoles; and like the Go, it can play downloadable PlayStation games. But it doesn't buy them from the PlayStation Network, even though it has an app that lets you log into it. Instead, it buys games from a separate store, which offers a separate selection of PlayStation games plus exclusive games made just for it. And it can also buy games from the Android Market ... including another selection of PlayStation games, like Syphon Filter and MediEvil.
Meanwhile, Sony's also working on its "Next-Generation Portable," or NGP, which is the direct successor to the PSP line. It'll be able to run older, downloadable PSP games, plus the PSOne games on the PlayStation Network, plus the "PlayStation Suite" games of the Xperia Play. But it won't be able to play the old UMD games, and it won't be able to buy games from the Android Market, even though it'll have an Android-style multitouch web browser with a 3G wireless Internet option.
There can be only one
The problem is that all of these devices, from the Xperia Play smartphone to the PSP Go, are meant to be the only device in your pocket. That's what the Sony rep says in one of Sony's YouTube videos, at any rate, about an older version of the PSP console. "Now the PSP can make phone calls with Skype!" is the message that video sends. "You only need the one gadget!"
Sony's problem, unfortunately for it, is that the one gadget everyone's bringing with them these days is a smartphone. And it's late to the smartphone party, with its "PlayStation Certified" initiative and its phones like the Xperia Play. It can't just tie them in to the PlayStation Network, and let you download the same games that would play on a PSP, because PSP games don't work on Android. Sony seems to be working overtime trying to port its old PSOne games to Android, but it's lagging behind where the PSP's already at, game-wise.
Meanwhile, as Sony tries to make Android phones into PlayStation Portables, it's also making its upcoming NGP console more like an Android phone. When's the last time you heard of a game console with 3G wireless Internet? Or a multitouch screen and web browser? Throw in Android Market access and a voice plan, and you'd have the world's chunkiest smartphone.
Sony's facing the problem that Apple's critics keep saying it will: Its proprietary platforms are being eclipsed by Android's open standard. Sony's trying to catch up, but it may already be too late.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.