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PlayStation Phone: Innovator or Imitator?

Sony’s new phone is aimed at avid gamers, but it’s unlikely to challenge the iPhone.

After seeing the mobile gaming market invaded by smart-phone makers in recent years, Sony Ericsson has now launched the first “Playstation phone,” called the Xperia Play. The device resembles a regular smart phone but has gaming buttons that slide out from beneath the screen.

The Xperia Play, launched this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, is designed to fend off growing competition in the mobile gaming market while carving out a new niche among many other mobile devices.

Smart phones have encroached on the mobile gaming market in recent years—in 2009, revenue from iPhone games surpassed revenue from Sony’s mobile PSP device, according to figures from research firm NPD and Flurry Analytics, a mobile analytics company.

Smart phones are now more powerful than many mobile gaming devices—the Samsung Galaxy S, for example, has three times the video processing of the Nintendo 3DS. Multitouch, motion-sensing interfaces have led to simple types of games that appeal to casual gamers. And smart-phone games sell for a few dollars, compared to around $30 for PSP games.

The Xperia Play’s hardware matches that of any high-end smart phone. It has a one-gigahertz Snapdragon processor, an Adreno 205 graphics processor (both made by Qualcomm), and uses Google’s Android operating system. It has a 10-centimeter, 854-by-480-pixel multitouch LCD screen, an eight-megapixel camera, and has eight gigabytes of SD memory, expandable to 32 gigabytes. Games can be downloaded via the Android Market.

In a time when many phones are focused on multitouch and motion control, the Xperia Play’s slide-out keypad, featuring Sony’s trademark gaming controls, may seem slightly retro. “It’s almost like a step backward,” says Daniel Ashdown, a mobile gaming research analyst with Juniper Research. But for the serious gamer, the buttons make sense, Ashdown says: “Sometimes you can’t get such a good interaction without a keypad.”

“If you are playing a driving game, you can use the accelerometers to steer, but it’s quite hard to do braking and acceleration,” adds Dan Hays, a mobile technology analyst and director of the consulting firm PRTM in Washington, D.C.

EA Games, which released its first games for the Android platform last October, has released two new titles for the Xperia Play: Fifa 10 and The Sims 3. According to Travis Boatman, VP of Worldwide Studios for EA Mobile, the company has been working with Sony Ericsson to ensure that the device’s keypad gives players more control in the Xperia Play versions of its games.

Making PlayStation games available through the Android Market could help broaden the appeal of the platform, says Hays. Accessories could allow other Android handsets to play those games. But Xperia Play is unlikely to compete with the iPhone, says Hays. He believes the popularity of Apple and Android devices has both helped and hindered existing players in the mobile gaming market. It has drawn some customers away from dedicated consoles, but it has also drawn in fresh new users who may not have previously considered buying games, he says.

The trick, for Sony Ericsson, will be persuading some of these new players, as well as dedicated gamers, to buy the Xperia Play.

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