Here they ComeFor the last few months, Sony has officially maintained this corporate fiction that they didn't need to release the PS3 until Christmas 2006--at the earliest. I even saw a comment from a Sony Vice-President that the PS2 had only reached the halfway point of its software lifecycle.
I said last fall that I expected a new console by Christmas 2004, and I expected it to be Xbox2, with PS3 following in 2005. That looked ridiculous a month ago, but in the last week things have changed--the Christmas 2004 window will still be missed, but not by much. Xbox2 is having a public showing within months, and Sony is suddenly debuting the PS3 late this fall--a year before previously expected.
That doesn't mean the consoles can be purchased then. You can make some good guesses, though, based on the information that's now available. It's been publicly announced that PS3 will be playable at E3 next year. Nintendo's new machine is supposed to be shown then as well, and whether they had planned on playable units or not, they're going to have to have them now in response to Sony.
In terms of being able to purchase units, I think that translates into Spring 2006 (at the very latest) for PS3 and Christmas 2005 for Nintendo's machine.
Microsoft has said all along that they would be first out of the gate for the next generation. That means Spring 2005 at the latest, and if they release after E3, they run the risk of Sony's E3 showing blowing their new console out of the water, so if they can release it in the March-April timeframe it will be much better for them.
Is there a disadvantage to being out first in this generation? Not if your system supports high-levels of antialiasing, anisotropic filtering, and Dolby 5.1, and can do it at 60fps. The ATI graphics card powering the system is supposedly more powerful than the current X800 series, which means that all of the necessary features should be easily supported, and there should also be standard 720p support for high-definition televisions (and hopefully 1080i, but I'm not sure about that).
Everyone was holding their cards close to their vest. Some of those cards are getting played now. No one is going to be claiming that there's no urgency for new consoles. From now on, it's going to be a mad dash to get these new machines to market.