Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Next-Gen: I Spy With My Little Eye

My brain finally clicked into the "on" position today about the next-generation consoles.

Note: my brain being in the "on" position may not be much better than your brain being in the "off" position. So the dramatic announcement in the first sentence of this column may actually be of extremely limited impact.

Ken Kutaragi is responsible for the brain-switching event. He's the president of Sony Computer Entertainment, and more importantly, he's one monkey dance away from becoming Steve Ballmer.

After E3, Kutaragi called the PS3 an "entertainment supercomputer." Last week, he gave an interview to Impress PC Watch that stirred images of a man in dirty, ill-fitting pajamas wandering the streets in bare feet.

Here are some excerpts from the interview (translated by Gamespot at
We're not going to equip [the PS3 with] an HDD by default, because no matter how much [capacity] we put in it, it won't be enough.

Um, okay. That doesn't make any sense, but okay.

The next step is definitely network drives. With the Cell server, they can be accessed from anywhere, via network. Whether it's your own house [or] your friend's house, you can access the [network hard drive] anywhere...a network drive would allow for terabytes of storage.

That's an interesting concept for a console that's coming out for $299 plus an optional hard drive. I would need terabytes of storage to play A GAME because...

This time, we're positioning the PS3 as a "supercomputer." But people won't recognize it as a computer unless we call it a computer, so we're going to run an OS on it. In fact, the Cell can run multiple OSes. In order to run the OSes, we need an HDD. So in order to declare that the PS3 is a computer, I think we'll have [the PS3's HDD] preinstalled with Linux as a bonus.

Okay, it's nice to have Linux preinstalled. Now what percentage of people who buy the PS3 will ever do anything with Linux? One percent? One-half of one percent? Does anyone else find it odd that a company striving to market a console as a turnkey media PC is installing the least accessible operating system on the optional hard drive?

In the case of the PC, users will have to wait for years between XP's UI to Longhorn's. But the PS3's UI will evolve much faster. For example, if we had an interface where we could control applications using gestures and words using the EyeToy, it would be like Minority Report. Of course, that kind of an evolution will also reflect on games. This will be the first form that [the Cell] will be spread. It can connect a keyboard, and it has all the necessary interfaces. It can run media, and it can run on a network. It's got such an all-around purpose, and it's open. It will become completely open if we equip it with Linux, and programmers will be able to do anything with it. It's the same thing with the graphics, since it's got the shaders.

Or maybe it could be like in Total Recall where you couldn't tell the difference between what was real and what was COMPLETE BULLSHIT.

I'm going to go out on a limb here. All the incredible claims that Sony is making for the PS3 are going to turn out to be 90% bullshit. The Cell network--no. The adoption of the PS3 as a PC (let alone a supercomputer)--no. The "aging" of recorded standard definition content into high definition content--no. Any of these that actually wind up existing are going to be far, far different, and far less compelling, than Sony is claiming now. The problem is that almost all of these features require either a huge amount of programming work and/or infrastructure to support. They're not a piece of candy that gets unwrapped and eaten.

This is (from all indications) a $299 console. So a three hundred dollar piece of hardware is going to provide more computing power than a PC, as well as a breathtaking array of additional features? Well, no it's not. In fact, Sony will be doing really well if the PS3 provides more computing power and features than a $500 PC.

It's been easy (and quite enjoyable, I must admit) to get caught up in the hype about these new consoles, and there's no question that they're a quantum leap forward from existing consoles. But what are the real chances that Microsoft or Sony can put out a box for $300 that matches the capabilities of the best $500 system available? I'd certainly expect the consoles to have more powerful video cards than a $500 system, but for general computer usage, I'm betting the $500 system wins.

And the $500 system is intended to be used as a PC. Installing programs will be transparent. Sony says the PS3 will run Windows just fine if it's installed, but how exactly would it run the applications? Will all applications run or just a selected subset? Games certainly won't, because the video card won't be supporting the DX9 standard, to the best of my knowledge.

What I'm saying is that I think Sony's making a big mistake here. We want the PS3 to play games. Sony acts like it does everything else, and oh by the way, it plays games, too. Maybe this is a strategy that works well in Japan, but remember the PSX Media Center? It was released last year to a huge amount of fanfare in Japan, and it featured a PS2, a DVD burner, hard drive recorder, and video/audio playback.

Sounds kind of like the feature set for the PS3, huh? So how did it do? Well, it puked all over itself. It was a colossal flop and Sony doesn't even have it in production anymore. Sony is trying to redirect the market instead of responding to it, and that might wind up being a very, very bad idea.

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