13
Feb
Sony-PSP-Vita-4-600x399

We certainly aren't a console video gaming blog, but when reviews of the US version of Sony's PlayStation Vita started cropping up this morning, I couldn't help but take notice of the new mobile console system's software. Particularly, how... smartphoney it looks.

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Image via The Verge

Everything in Sony's Vita OS has been appified - Google Maps is there, while Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Skype apps are forthcoming. Sony has its own suite of apps as well, including a full-blown browser which, although it appears to be pretty terrible, is apparently the best on any mobile gaming device to date. But the point is this: the Vita's OS looks and tries to be a lot like a smartphone's. Reviews have almost universally agreed on this point, as well:

"The Vita dispenses with the PSP and PS3's XMB interface in favor of a new, smartphone-inspired OS."
-The Verge

"The Vita's smartphone-esque user interface hasn't changed one bit since we first smudged it at San Francisco's Vita Hill Social Club."
-Engadget

"Start up the PS Vita and you are met with Sony’s new interface, part smartphone part games machine, part Xperia, part PSP."
-Wired

"Stick and click—or touch and swipe—your way through menus that are an even mix of generic smartphone and PS3."
-Gizmodo

"The user interface, in comparison, is all brand new. Gone, for the most part, is the XrossMediaBar. It still pops up in the Settings mode, but the main inspiration for the UI is, dare we say it, iOS."
-Pocket-Lint

And it's not hard to see how this sentiment has arisen.

Notification/status bar? Check. Tiled home screen? See above. Touch display? Present. Appification of everything? Pretty much. 3G connectivity? You got it.

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Image via The Verge

It's not a stretch to say that, but for lacking a dialer application, the PS Vita is a (albeit quite large) smartphone that doesn't work as a phone. Now, don't nail me to the wall in the comments just yet - I'm well-aware that statement is a bit of a reach. The Vita is close to a smartphone like a pickup truck is close to a race car. Both have 4 wheels, utilize internal combustion engines for propulsion, and are operated via steering wheel, but it's clear key differences remain.

Namely, you can't, and probably wouldn't want to, use the PS Vita as a phone. Even if it did have a dialer and phone functionality, you'd essentially be putting a Ford Ranger with slick tires and racing stripes on a track - not only will you be slow, you'll look like an idiot. The Vita's mediocre battery life (3-5 hours), large size (18.6mm thick, roughly 8" across), and lackluster app library would be insurmountable obstacles to such a device's success in the increasingly cutthroat world of smartphones.

But these flaws are of relatively minimal importance in its intended market. They're even beneficial in some ways - the large size means room for thumb controls and a large display, two key selling points for the device. But compared to its predecessor, the Vita's evolutionary shift is clear: A big, beatufiul touchscreen. Apps. Cellular data. The signs are here.

PlayStation erectus

Now, I'm not saying I know how or when this movie ends, but I've got my suspicions, and some information to back them up. I believe many of us picture a future where the need for multiple portable electronics continues to decrease. We've already witnessed the consolidation of the pager, dumb-phone, Walkman, digital watch, and numerous other gadgets into one class of device. Like it or not, Steve Jobs and Apple were probably the parties largely responsible for initiating this process of natural selection - but Android has kicked it into high gear.

That makes the Vita a bit of a Neandertal. In an evolutionary family tree rapidly converging on a single successful form factor (well, two - tablets, as well), can devices like the Vita use what advantages they may have to continue carving out their own environmental niche? We know the MP3 player failed to do this, and Apple remains the last refuge of that species, which is slowly but certainly headed towards extinction.

And I see no reason why devices like the Vita won't suffer the same fate. Mobile gaming devices went unchallenged for almost 20 years, until the iPhone and a little title called Angry Birds showed everyone that it didn't take a name like Nintendo or Electronic Arts and a $50 price-tag to make millions on a video game. And as for graphics? Take a look at games like Shadowgun, which feature visuals not too far from those seen on PC games of only three to four years ago.

Shadowgun_04

Shadowgun for Android

The takeaway? The Vita and devices like it are almost certainly going the way of our bygone evolutionary siblings (depending on whose theory you believe, that is). Evolve or die - this is the mantra by which the high technology market has operated for decades. And this is where Android comes into the fray: how will Sony evolve to save a fairly profitable division of its otherwise stagnating business?

Assimilation Or Annihilation

Option one, in my opinion, is the most forward thinking: get on the smartphone train while you can, and hope to retain some of your genetic distinctiveness. Sony makes Android phones, and has for a while. It even made a (pretty crappy) gaming phone. Sony is definitely testing the waters, because it knows what lies ahead.

Sony-ericsson-xperia-play_1

The XPERIA Play

But Sony hasn't let go of its identity yet, because it still makes good financial sense to pursue a standalone mobile gaming device. Licensing agreements and royalties from publishers are quite profitable, owing in large part to the high retail price of games (around $50), and proprietary software and hardware that at least make it tedious to pirate and play those games on other platforms. In addition, there's the fact that its PSP line of devices has been wildly popular in Japan.

Android, however, presents larger risks to the company. Countries without access to paid apps or the Market altogether are rife with community-supported piracy. And good luck with software DRM - a single vulnerability means your high-profile game will end up on a warez board in China or Russia in no time. That's not to say the same doesn't happen with its modern console titles, but like I said, you'll still probably want to buy the console they were designed for, and go through the hassle of h4x0ring it to play them. And profit margins on mobile games pale in comparison to their console cousins.

Gaming remains a very big part of Sony's product portfolio - one with a history nearly 2 decades long (hard to believe the PlayStation was released way back in '94, isn't it?) - while its smartphone division has been around barely a tenth that long.

Sony is also a company infamous for its dogmatic stubbornness when it comes to proprietary (or obscure) hardware formats (Betamax, Blu-ray, UMD, speaker connectors, various memory cards), using tying strategies to lock consumers into its closed product ecosystems. Once again, Android makes doing this difficult - at least without losing access to the Market. Sony, more than any manufacturer, probably resents being reliant on Android at this point. Android means Sony loses control over content access, has to support common memory standards, and leave the underlying OS functionality relatively intact.

Conclusion

Sony executives are almost certainly salivating over the prospect of a totally proprietary Sony smartphone, which they can not only leverage to carriers looking for the newest and coolest devices, but to consumers with a desire for upmarket gaming titles that blow anything Android or iOS have out of the water. A Vita-like smartphone, then, could be on the horizon.

The big question, though, is whether or not Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 7 devices will kill Sony's mobile gaming division before it has a chance to evolve. If the smartphones triumph and Sony can no longer realistically (read: profitably) leverage its premium gaming experience in the mobile space, it will be forced to eventually choose Android to continue on that legacy as best it can. No amount of marketing can bring an obsolete product back to relevance - something Research In Motion learns on a quarterly basis.

Of course, if Sony started making serious moves to convert that segment of its business to Android right now, it could save a lot of time, money, sweat, and tears - assuming such a shift would succeed. Amazon has already proven that a sufficient content library can make a device without Google-approval work. Could Sony do the same with a heavily skinned Android PlayStation phone, perhaps utilizing hardware DRM to protect its game titles and Amazon's Appstore to supplement a lack of content?

I don't know. But what I do know is this: I'd definitely be interested in seeing that phone.

David Ruddock
David's phone is an HTC One. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, imparting a legal perspective on tech news, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://twitter.com/gamercore Chris Chavez

    I got to play with the Vita a few times but it was only recently (Vita Hill in LA) that I got to delve into the OS. I would say it's definitely more iOS than Android and almost had some multitasking going on (you could do other things but then it would close the game you were playing).

    The UI is so buttery smooth and responsive that it's light years ahead of Android. It's like my finger and the screen were one in the same. This is what eventually led to me to the conclusion that this may have been the reason Sony decided to forgo Android altogether, instead building their own touch-based OS.

    If this device launched on carriers, I might even get one and keep Android for a tablet-only experience. O_o

    • anona

      You haven't used android much on a good piece of hardware then man. A simple kernel tweak on the GS2 and you get 1:1 smoothness.

      • PointZeroOne

        'kernel tweak'

        Yeah because everyone wants to have to hack there device to get it running well. >_<

        • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com Cody

          Normally I would agree with your side of that particular argument, but anona got this one right. The question at hand is more about what CAN be done as opposed to what has been done. Just because Samsung has screwed up on their software efforts with Android doesn't mean that Sony would screw up on a legitimate effort at a game machine. When Sony intends to do something right (you know, products that ARE NOT the Xperia Play), they tend to produce a pretty decent result.

        • PointZeroOne

          Sony haven't made a decent Android phone yet. They had there chance with the Play and screwed it up. What makes you think they'll actually put any more effort into a gaming phone?

        • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com Cody

          I think you read my post wrong. I acknowledged they screwed up the Play (because they weren't really trying to do a good job, the device was obviously on the lower end of mid-range) and I didn't say that they would try again. I only said that they COULD use Android as the basis for a perfectly serviceable OS on a gaming-oriented device. I also suggested in another comment that I doubt they would go with Android and would be far more likely to choose something like QNX or just start from relative scratch with Linux before picking up Android.

  • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com Cody

    Consider Sony's historical nature which is largely fashioned from years of trying to form partnerships and having every single one turn out to be a bad deal. Now consider that getting in on Android is effectively partnering with several companies (not just Google). Add in Sony's strict love of being proprietary. Sony isn't likely to go Android...

    It doesn't fit the licensing model at all, which is how MS, Sony and Nintendo make a huge chunk of their money. The best reason to go Android is to encourage small-time app developers, which they surely want, but in limited levels to ensure major studios get to exist with minimal competition with the kid down the block. Sony also knows Android is WAY too hackable to be a viable option to keep things heavily locked down.

    I suspect they will sooner look to QNX or wholesale Linux, modify the daylights out of it and push it out with custom hardware (much like Apple did with OSX). I agree though, there's no hope that they can continue down the path they are on without eventually giving into the fact that competitors are putting out devices with comparable (or better) graphics, better battery life, more features, and thanks to subsidies can even be had cheaper.

  • PointZeroOne

    Sure all it's going to take is a phone company to take the plunge and build a proper gaming phone. The Xperia play was kind of there but very underpowered.

    It would have to take Sony or Nintendo turning there next portable into a Phone.

    The other issue I see is that the battery life would be cut even more on a Phone/Gaming device.

    I have a 3DS and a Galaxy S2 I like being able to game on a dedicated device and know I'm not running down my phones battery. I've even been looking at getting a dedicated mp3 as it feels more convenient to have than use my phone.

    Also always a portable gaming device is bigger thicker than a phone and NEEDS dedicated controls. Thinking on this, if you were to take a phone and put the PS Vita controls on it you'd end up with something bigger than the 3DS. You see Nintendo has released an add for the 3DS to give it another analogue stick.

    A dedicated gaming phone with decent control setup really does not end up being a practical size. Specially since they'd still have to take some kind of game disc/card as not everyone can download games to their phone (see the PSP Go and how quickly it went away).

    • http://www.androidpolice.com David Ruddock

      Eh, Nintendo managed for years with something the size of the GameBoy Advance / Color - they were pretty small. Slide-out controls mitigate some of the size issues. I think size is a concern, for sure, but it's also one that I think could be mitigated through clever design.

      • PointZeroOne

        They were pretty small and very underpowered compared to today's standards.

        And no slide out controls would not work as you wouldn't be able to do analogue sticks well with that.

        Even with slide out controls, you are looking at one thick device to sit in your pocket.

        • GraveUypo

          that's the thing, you can make the controls an add-on. when you don't need the buttons, just pop out the "screen" and you have a regular smartphone. want to do some gaming? alright, just plug the controller add-on.

          i was planning to do something similar with a bluetooth controller and a psp case but it turned out to be more than i could chew so i had to back off.

          just illustrating:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hs7DiVwgs0I

          but i would make a little "dock" space for the phone on where the screen goes so you wouldn't really need to open the controller to put the phone there. it would be awesome. too bad i suck at actually building it. (i still have all the parts tho, so maybe someday i might pay someone to do it for me)

  • Dan

    I really hope Sony do make a vita like smartphone. To me, pretty much all games on any mobile OS to date are pretty crappy. I think everyone could admit that no mobile game out there is as good as a top end PS3 or Xbox title. If sony have a chance at changing that then i certainly welcome it. I will drool when the day comes that i can play Uncharted on a mobile phone. But until that day i think devices like the vita will rule the mobile gaming market as the games are big console quality. :)

  • joey the mad scientist

    me personally i just haven't found an "app" experience as rewarding as i have with a gaming console game. i think there is a very large market that want better control schemes, more rewarding and rich gameplay, and deeper stories than what is currently out there for cell phones. there is a reason why apps are only a few bucks. besides, what do i do if i am on a conference call? i can't use my phone to play video games at the same time ;-)

    • http://www.androidpolice.com David Ruddock

      It's true. I always feel left wanting more, even with high-end and relatively content-rich titles like those from Gameloft. 10 hours of gameplay with little replay value is what you get for $5, I suppose, but I'd be willing to pay $15 for 50 hours of play and some polished multiplayer.

      The market is there, I think, and we'll start seeing better and better games as time goes on.

  • Mark

    Smartphone gaming (and I use gaming liberally here) is atrocious). Have you seen the control on those things? Sorry but flicking my device up and down and blocking half the screen with my thumb isn't my style of gaming.

    • Himmat

      I understand the fact that playing games like ShadowGun on smartphones is substandard. Imagine playing it on a 3.5'' iPhone screen.

      However, the experience ( for me at least) on tablets is much better. You just have to get used to the controls.

      However, 10 inch tabs might be a little too weighty and big for gaming. You couldn't possibly play accelerometer-based racing games for hours on end w/o feeling pain in your hands, could you?

      So I think the best trade-off is that we'd see gaming tablets target the 7'' form-factor. Not too small, and not too big. The first winner in this category will probably be the 7'' Transformer Prime!

  • Hansen

    Great article. Nice analysis. As a vita owner, using the physical joystick is a joy. Not only enjoyable, but minimizes fatigue and stress over half an hr of play. As you can still have good view of the content. I think converging technologies such as touchscreen is a bonus for avid smartphone users. Many are so used to touch thanks to a**le that it is essential to reduce learning curve.

    Being a working professional, I only played vita during my hrly travelling time while transisting to work, so I'm quite satisfied with the battery life. But for hardcore gamers, they may be of a different genre that requires more juice!

  • Joe

    Really? An android site saying the vita can't compete with smartphones is a joke. Of course it can't! But the thing is it's not. The people who Sony is targeting don't want the $5 crap on phones and actually enjoy buttons. No gamer would prefer to play an fps on Android over the vita. And as for phones, don't really agree but your point at least is logical and makes sense.

  • Doods de los Reyes

    It's no longer a battle of devices but a battle of platforms. Gaming on iOS has taken off because apps are easy to buy off the App Store plus most of them are free or don't cost much. Android probably has even more free game apps than iOS. If Sony tries to go its own way even with a high-spec device such as the Vita, it will have to build sufficient numbers for developers to take notice. I for one was eagerly waiting for the Playstation Phone because I am one of the few who like hardware controls for mobile gaming. Too bad the reviews for the controls were so bad. I'd like it for Sony to try it again with a Playstation Vita Phone that has Android on it.

    • PointZeroOne

      Gaming on iOS has taken off because everyone has an Apple Phone, compared to only gamers having dedicated gaming devices.

      Sony doesn't have to compete with mobile phone games etc. Because there is no competition from that area at this stage. The games are substandard compared to what you'd get on a dedicated gaming device or have stupid micro transaction systems. And are not designed for long gameplay.

      Sony has to compete with Nintendo in portable gaming because that is the only other company that is in this market.

      • Doods de los Reyes

        Most people carry phones with them. Not a lot carry a dedicated portable gaming device anymore. Hence, it was iOS and Android that took the fight to Sony and Nintendo by harnessing the hardware already in phones to create entertaining and time-wasting games you can play anytime by whipping out their phones. The threat to Sony and Nintendo is that people would no longer want to buy an expensive device which needs expensive games to go along with it and carry them around when they can get their game on on their phones, which they already have with them anyway.

        If only phones had built-in hardware controls (or a passable peripheral) then the big game developers will target iOS and/or Android devices as well and leave Sony and Nintendo out in the cold. Sony can stay in the fight by being the one to merge the smartphone with the dedicated gaming device successfully.

        • PointZeroOne

          Sure most people carry phones with them. But if you are a portable gamer you pretty well much always carry your gaming device with you as well.

          And even if the phone had dedicated controls or a peripheral I think big game devs will want the phone locked down so games are not easily pirated.

      • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com Cody

        This is true today, as anybody can see that longer playing games tend to be common with the dedicated devices and casual games are owning the phones.

        The catch is, both of those are very profitable segments with each mostly dominated by a couple handfuls of names...Nintendo has scored some traction with casual, but not much. Sony has always failed at casual and besides surely attracting Rovio (cause Angry Birds is on everything), they probably won't do well here either...By contrast, if a couple of the big players like Square Enix or Bioware decided to take a mobile os seriously (cause Square Enix definitely hasn't taken iOS seriously yet) then Sony will have to do something very fast.

        Yeah, causal games are bad on dedicated systems and serious games are bad on phones, but both of those things can change before anybody expects it.

  • JonathaN

    It's kind of lame that people would rather play simple games with only touch controls instead of having a console quality game on a dedicated gaming device. Touch controls will never be as good as actual buttons. Its gonna suck if gaming handhelds get killed by Android and ios

    • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com Cody

      Depends on type of game and the type of player. Some people really only like casual games. I don't particularly care for Angry Birds, but I can't imagine it being much fun on a console.

      Reframe the perspective and consider that by killing off dedicated gaming devices something far better will evolve from the ashes. I don't see very many people complaining that cassette tapes were killed by the CD...and NOBODY seems to mind that we killed the CD with digital.

  • nyan

    "And as for graphics? Take a look at games like Shadowgun, which feature visuals not too far from those seen on PC games of only three to four years ago."

    Maybe some indie game from 2007 but i wouldnt take shadowguns graphics over half life 2, something from almost 8 years ago. And really 4 years ago we had crysis :)

  • Elimental

    I have a Xperia Play that replaced my 1st Gen PSP and I must admit I have no desire to get a Vita.

    Simply because my Play is always with me and the games are cheaper. Yes I am not a Games addict but when I need to kill some time waiting for something/someone I dont have to remember to bring a dedicated device. Its there in my pocket ready to play.

    That said I fear that Sony will not make a decent Xperia Play as it will eat into the above mentioned license deals and income. Which is a pity as I would have loved to get a quad core or SGS2 like specs in my Play.

  • Storm

    "Mobile gaming devices went unchallenged for almost 20 years,"

    Make that 30...
    Anybody else remember the Nintendo Game & Watch? :)

  • MarkG

    How much more diffucult do you think it could be?

    The Vita already comes in a 3G flavor, so adding voice capabilities, a dialer and a messaging app....

    It's an obvious path.

    That said, I prefer my Xperia and Android. Perhaps Sony should look at Android compatibility ontop of Vita OS.

    • Hansen

      Perhaps that's a dangerous game to play. The development machine costs tens of thousands of dollars for the content provider to purchase from Sony. This is with trust and partnership with Sony about delivery of content, protection and also marketing. Sony's commitment with the games company and the hardware itself is not easily dissolved. Looking at the big picture, mature games company will still support proprietary consoles for years to come, though porting to other platforms is something that may happen as other OSes' ecosystem matures.

      Let's speculate what new revolutionary device be introduced this year. Maybe a transformer phone by Hasbro? Pull out the controls to the side to reveal the physical controls. Or the concept of Corning having glass electronics. Let's see how far technologies can advance this year!

  • OFI

    "perhaps utilizing hardware DRM to protect its game titles and Amazon's Appstore to supplement a lack of content?"

    Not til the Amazon Appstore extends to outside of the US I wouldn't have thought.

    Vita looks like huge fail to me, the price is dangerously close to that of some decently spec'd Androids. As the article says iOS and Android are proving that they can have some pretty good looking games now (provided you can get over touch screen controls)

    • PointZeroOne

      Dangerously close? It's a completely different market and shouldn't be seen as competing. They are only having similar designs because that is what people are used to now.

  • PointZeroOne
  • PointZeroOne

    Shadowgun looks so simple in comparison to shadowgun

    • PointZeroOne

      er...

      Shadowgun looks so simple in comparison to uncharted

  • Coollead

    This is the worst, most uninformed article I've read concerning the Vita.

    Have you ever bothered to check what the "PlayStation Suite" is? It's a way to get apps running on both Android and the Vita. The Xperia Arc, S, Ion, NX, Play, and Acro/AcroHD plus Sony's tablets all support it. Third party support is supposedly coming.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayStation_Suite

    They're already combining Android and video game systems and you were too lazy to do any research about it.

    • David Ruddock

      First off, I am aware of the PlayStation Suite.

      Secondly, it doesn't magically mean Vita games will play on your Android phone. They have to be designed to meet PS Certified requirements - that is, they almost certainly will need to be much lower-end games in the first place. The "PS Suite"-friendly games released so far have all been ported old PSX games. And there have been all of a dozen.

      I fail to see how this shows they are "combining" Android and console systems. All I see is an obvious and convenient source of revenue being exploited (old, already-released games). Considering the fact that the Play was a massive flop and a terrible phone with outdated internals, I don't see any cutting-edge games with amazing visuals being released for it any time soon. The Play's time has clearly passed, and Sony's tablets have been equally (if not moreso) unsuccessful.

      Finally, there's no need to be such a dick about it. The existence of PS Suite isn't some Achilles' heel in my 1500-word analysis of the Vita and Sony's strategy - yet you seem to enjoy waving it around like you've discovered some dirty little secret. News flash: you haven't.

  • RandomGamer

    i don't really get the argument. smartphones are ok for quick games, just like they're ok for snapshots. they aren't going to replace a dedicated handheld for gamers just like they aren't going to replace a dslr for photographers.

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      There's a physical limitation (the lens mechanisms) preventing phones from becoming DSLRs, but no such limitation exists that prevents them from becoming excellent gaming devices.

      • PointZeroOne

        yes there is, decent physical controls.

        An all in one device will always be sub par to a dedicated device.

  • Hal Motley

    I agree to this very much because Sony ditched their signature XMB interface for an interface that was clearly optimised to a capacitive touchscreen.

    I believe Sony has been inspired by Android with all those Xperia phones that they churn out (the only one in my interest is the Play because of it's PlayStation gaming controls) and they have decided to incorporate that into their portable gaming devices.

    Also they are keeping an eye on Nintendo and are trying to kill those 3DS.

  • Edd

    I dont care massively for Sony, although I adored the original PS1. But all I really wanted to say is that someone really needs to bring out a proper Bluetooth gaming "wallet" for phones such as the Nexus/S2/S3. Lots of enthusiasts/small companies have tried, but noone has done it well yet.

  • anon

    Why cant Sony make a physical controller dock/skin for its phones? looks and acts like a phone w/o the dock/skin.. looks and acts like a Vita with the dock/skin