When Sony Computer Entertainment's worldwide CEO Kazua Hirai announced last night at the company's pre-E3 2011 press conference that AT&T was going to be the 3G wireless carrier for its newly renamed PS Vita portable console, there was an immediate cry of groans and some laughs from the assembled audience of journalists.
Hirai look completely shocked at the reaction but I knew this would happen when this deal was announced. The surprising thing is that Sony didn't seem to see it coming and that may be a big problem when it comes to the sales success of the PS Vita.
There were some things we liked about the PS Vita. We love the dual sticks and the touch screen. The ability to control the game even from the back of the console is interesting. We really like the fact that the PS Vita will link to the PS3 for things like save games (for Ruin) or downloading user created mods (for Little Big Planet and ModNation Racers).
But the truth is that the portable game scene has changed completely since Sony announced the original PSP console so many years ago. The mobile phone and more recently the tablet business has exploded both in terms of sales and in terms of technology. We currently have mobile phones and tablets, like the iPad 2, that have dual core processors. Soon we will have quad-core based mobile devices if Nvidia's plans for its "Kal-El" processor is to be believed.
More importantly, people are now used to downloading games along with other apps. There are a ton of entertaining games that are available for free (hello Angry Birds) and most of the others are cheap to download. They offer gaming experiences that rival or even surpass those of the current portable console generation. When even indie game developers can access the power of Unreal Engine 3 (via the UDK) to make games and sell them on mobile devices that's a true game changer.
Now Sony's processor for the PS Vita is also supposed to be a four core product (the ARM-based Cortex-A9 core) and PowerVR is the GPU provider (the SGX543MP4+ processor). But the problem is that the portable game console is going to suffer from the fact that the mobile phone and tablet business seems to be moving at a much quicker pace in terms of bringing new and faster technology and operating systems to the public. Sony is scheduled to bring the PS Vita by the end of the holiday season. But that also means that around CES 2012 we could see mobile phones and tablets being introduced that could be more powerful than Sony's new product. They could also have prices (helped by two year contracts with wireless providers) that are around the same or even lower than the PS Vita.
The point is; why buy any portable gaming console when your mobile phone and/or tablet will be just fine for most consumers? They can plan entertaining games and do a ton more than the PS Vita which, even though it will have 3G service, doesn't appear to have a traditional phone plan (there is "voice chat" for the game's Party social networking feature but that's not quite the same thing).
While there are a lot of things about the PS Vita that I like, I am concerned that Sony is releasing a new and fairly expensive device in a mobile tech world that moves much faster and offers cheaper alternatives. It's possible that Sony has something up its sleeve that we don't know yet about the PS Vita such as a true mobile phone feature. Only time will tell if this newest game console will be a success.