Is Sony Developing A PlayStation Phone?

Posted by: Kenji Hall on June 29, 2009

Is Sony finally taking aim at Apple’s iPhone? Over the weekend the Japanese business daily Nikkei reported that Sony plans to form a skunkworks team whose job it will be to design a hybrid video game-cell phone gizmo—one that taps the company’s years of producing PlayStation Portable gaming consoles and Sony-Ericsson handsets. A spokeswoman at Sony wouldn’t confirm whether the report was true, and would only say that executives were considering “various possibilities.” Combining elements of a PSP and handset would seem a “natural process of thinking,” the spokeswoman said, without elaborating.

This comes as a bit of a surprise. CEO Howard Stringer has often talked about Apple as one of a new crop of competitors that also includes Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. But in the past Sony has made a point of not making me-too products—even when those products go on to become hits. (No surprise there: Its engineers in Japan are too proud of their heritage to create a product that is a knock-off of a competitor’s.) That’s not a bad thing. Consider how many iPhone look-alike handsets have appeared in the past couple of years. None has even come close to the iPhone’s popularity.

The iPhone has shown how a cell phone can also work as a compelling gaming device: Of the 50,000 programs available on the iPhone through the App Store, games account for the biggest chunk, or about a fifth of the offerings. Many are given away for free or sell for just 99 cents. That, no doubt, riles Sony’s gaming division. Sony’s PSP has lagged Nintendo’s DS portable gaming console since the two machines were launched in late 2004. And sales of Apple’s iPhone, which was released in mid-2007, are fast closing the gap with the PSP.

If Sony has the iPhone in its sights, the question facing the Japanese tech giant is: Can it develop a phone that did more and generated more buzz than the iPhone? The jury is out. Sony’s best efforts to end the iPod’s dominance in portable media players can only be rated a mild success, at best. Coming up with software that rivals Apple’s iTunes continues to be Sony’s biggest challenge. (Sony isn’t alone, either.)

Rumors that Sony was working on a PlayStation cell phone first cropped up two years ago when Sony’s engineers filed a patent describing such a gizmo. The Internet rumor mill went into overdrive again in April, after Kazuo Hirai, who had led Sony’s video game division, was named as the head of a broader portfolio of networked products and services. The PlayStation Network is Sony’s biggest success story in online services. Under Hirai, the PlayStation group has rolled out online downloads of music, movies, TV shows, games and created a content platform for developers to create applications and games, sell videos, and post trailers and sneak previews. It’s clearly the model that Sony wants other divisions to emulate.

What’s unclear is why the video game group might have rejected having the PlayStation brand extended to Sony-Ericsson’s products in the past. (Sony says that’s not what happened but it hasn’t offered an explanation, either.) Sony’s gaming team could have been wary of such a product after Nokia’s failed attempt with the N-Gage gaming phone. Cell phone chipmaker Qualcomm also showed off a prototype, dubbed Slingshot, of a clamshell phone with a screen that swiveled around to reveal buttons and a joystick and could hook up to a TV but the concept went nowhere. One of the things that had made a PlayStation phone seem unlikely in the past was that fact that the PSP allow Net voice chat software Skype (over a Wi-Fi network). Still, Skype would seem a small thing to prevent Sony from pushing ahead with a PSP phone.

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Reader Comments

Matt

June 29, 2009 01:41 PM

I don't know when Sony supposedly "dominated the market for handheld gaming devices", because Nintendo has been dominant in the handheld market since the original Game Boy. The PSP has never come close to being the dominant device on the market. It has never been able to overcome the already existing fanbase for Nintendo in the handheld market, and the creativity of the games coming out for Nintendo's systems.

Mats

June 29, 2009 03:12 PM

That is really interesting but can they compete?
However Sony is good att games so, why not?


MatsRG
Myiphone

Erik Steinmetz

June 29, 2009 04:00 PM

Would you care to substantiate your assertion that Sony dominated the market for handheld gaming devices until the DS and the iPhone came along?

As I recall, Nintendo has almost completely dominated the handheld gaming market since 1989's introduction of the GameBoy created it (on a large scale). Did I overlook some early version of the PSP that sold tens of millions and tons of software?

Paul

June 29, 2009 11:11 PM

Uh, ok, so when Japan copied all American products in the 1950-1990's that doesn't count? Komatsu had interchangeable parts with Caterpillar several years running for gods sake. Japan IP ripoff was the US's biggest problem back then. Even now, if you live in Japan, you will see many examples of contemporary products that are being ripped off. China is following the Japanese model of growth. That is partly why Japan is quiet about it. They don't want everyone to go back and publicize embarrassing copies of the past. Have you seen Toyota's Hummer copy?

meditation

June 30, 2009 08:32 AM

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matt

July 2, 2009 01:57 PM

It does mention anywhere in the artical that Sony dominated the handheld gaming devices market. It mentions that Sony has been trying, unsuccessfully, to end Apple's dominance of portable media players (aka walkmans).

Jogging

July 4, 2009 10:25 AM

After reading the article, I think for a while what device in my life are made by Sony. About ten years ago I owned a Sony walkman.

Lloyd

July 5, 2009 04:16 PM

Ok first off before there were Ipods, what was there? Its not a matter of Sony never dominating, its a matter of Sony taking back what was theirs. Sony has been a great innovator of technology and electronic products for a long time, but look @ how many products they make. Cameras, HDTV's, computers, laptops, and other things. How do they have time to monitor one product.

VisitHere

July 11, 2009 08:13 AM

I'am sure sony will inovate good technology gadgets.
As sony products already well known all over the world.
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Patricia

August 20, 2009 09:50 AM

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Patricia

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objectif

September 23, 2009 07:07 AM

Hi,
If it is really so, I am anxiously waiting for it. Thanks for this nice information.

objectif

kristianna

September 26, 2009 07:38 AM

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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