PSP’s Next Move

Colin Campbell is Editor-in-Chief, Online of Edge

News that Sony is gauging public opinion on desirable future specs for its PSP has prompted debate about the future direction of this likeable device.

Ken Kutaragi’s predictions that PSP would take its seat as the "Walkman of the 21st century" now looks like a bad joke. Apple’s iPhone is the only device that might make such a ludicrous claim and, even with that happy little chappy’s amazing success, Walkman still feels like an overblown comparison.

iPhone’s relevance to PSP goes beyond the hyperbole of executives. When it launched around the world in 2004 and 2005, PSP looked like something futuristic and pretty. But even after the introduction of lighter, sleeker versions in 2007 and 2008, with attendant jump in sales, it now looks like a contraption whose time has gone. iPhone is smaller, sleeker, prettier, and better in almost every department, save as a games device.

You may argue that, given PSP’s status as a games machine, this is all that matters. But it’s not.

Graphically and via the quality of its games library, PSP is way better. PSP is, at the core of its beating heart, a games machine, while iPhone is absolutely not. Those famous PlayStation face buttons and directional pad offer no illusions about PSP’s function.

And yet, for Sony, the prize never was to simply create a successful handheld games device, but to create a handheld games device that would make the company successful in the portable entertainment market. And, by that metric, PSP must be considered only a partial success at best and one without much of a future, as the technology now stands.

As a media device and as a social networking device it is entirely inferior to iPhone; not to mention as a fashion accessory. Remember when Sony was telling us that cool people like PSPs while children like DS? The problem with pinning your hopes to ‘cool’ is the mutability of that particular quality.

If Sony wishes its games machine to be anything other than a bygone, it must make significant changes.

Curious then, that Kotaku’s story about a questionnaire sent out to PSP owners, covers many of the improvements that you’d hope to see in any future iterations.

PSP must and will get smaller. It must offer a touch-screen (although not at the expense of proper game controls). It must offer a vast library of simple-to-download content and community features that embrace existing communities (it would be just like Sony to make a mistake like trying to re-invent Facebook). It must offer sufficient storage for content, while allowing users to play complex games via UMD.

Some of these wish-list items appear to be contradictory, and herein lies Sony’s problem. In the handheld games machine market it has been beaten by Nintendo’s DS. In the handheld content market it has been outfoxed by its own dedication to UMD, and the very obvious dedication of the rest of the word to downloadable content.

PSP and DS have been saved from defeat these past few years by the complete poverty of the mobile phone games market. But iPhone is already showing signs of significant improvement. There are plenty of potential PSP owners who will wonder what such a device can really offer them, that they can’t get from their iPhone. For them, niceties like game complexity or graphical fidelity are less important than the usefulness of having one device that is ‘good enough’ at playing games.

PSP must be positioned as significantly superior as a games machine, and just as good as an entertainment and communications device. It must also be redesigned for the world of 2010, and not for the world of 2005, which was a significantly different place. Sony must also resist the temptation to merely ape iPhone. There is no shame in being outflanked by the likes of Steve Jobs, but the lesson he offers is that big ambitions are way more lucrative than playing catch-up.