Sony's playing no games with PlayStation2

Sony Computer Entertainment outlined on Monday the specifications of its much-anticipated PlayStation2 (PS2), saying that it will position the speedy game machine as a platform to distribute digital content into the home via the Internet.

More than just a game machine, the PS2, which is still under development, could become a computing engine in the home for playing a broad range of games, running graphics programs, viewing motion pictures and listening to music, Sony officials said.

However, the officials downplayed the possibility that the new Sony machine could face off against the most popular computing device currently resident in homes -- the PC. "A new world will be created on the basis of PlayStation2 in the coming years," said Ken Kutaragi, president and chief executive officer of the Sony games subsidiary. "The client right now is the PC, but the PlayStation2 will be a completely different [computing] environment."

The announcement is Sony's second public PS2 promotion and the first time the company has showed a model of the machine. The PS2, which has high-speed graphics capabilities, a DVD-ROM drive and network interfaces, will ship in Japan next year on March 4 and about six months later in North America and Europe, according to Sony officials. In Japan, the machine will be priced at 39,800 yen ($560).

On one level, the PS2 is Sony's answer to its traditional home video game competitors Sega Enterprises and Nintendo, which the company has battled against since the first PlayStation launch in 1994. The PS2 will compete with Sega's Dreamcast, rolled out last week in the US. Nintendo, meanwhile, with the help of Sony rival Matsushita Electric Industrial, is readying its next-generation gaming console, tentatively named Dolphin, for release in August of 2000.

If all goes as many analysts predict, the PS2 could also thrust Sony headlong into an up-and-coming battle for next-generation home computing devices. Microsoft and Intel are pushing future forms of the PC as the centerpieces of home computing, while others vendors, including cable companies, are promoting advanced set-top boxes as the answer to future home entertainment needs.

"I think that the PS2 will compete with set-top boxes or home servers," said Takao Shiino, general manager of Nomura Research Institute's (NRI's) Information & Communications Industry Consulting Department. Specifically, Shiino pointed to future home servers from Matsushita and Nintendo's Dolphin system as examples of home network products and the PS2's future competitors.

Matsushita has been especially aggressive in developing a network for homes that will connect TVs, music players, and even home appliances to the Internet, according to Shiino.

To be sure, Sony is hedging its bets with other home platforms unrelated to the PS2. The Japanese vendor is expanding its Vaio family of PCs and is at work on various set-top box projects.

But the PS2 is a complete break from Sony's other initiatives. Foremost is the PS2's 'brain' -- a CPU (central processing unit) Sony is developing with Toshiba -- and the device's network features.

The PS2 will run on a 128-bit processor Sony calls the Emotion Engine. Combined with another under-development graphics processor, the PS2 offers high-speed graphics capabilities never before available in a consumer product. In a demonstration yesterday, Sony and its software partners showed clips from under-development PS2 games in which surrounding scenery was reflected off of flowing water and the hair of characters was ruffled by the wind -- two capabilities that require intensive graphics processing.

The machine is also equipped with high-speed network interfaces. The console has one IEEE 1394 port and 2 USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports which allow the machine to be hooked up to a range of peripheral devices such as a video camera or be connected to a server that could store videos or movies, Sony officials said.

The machine is also equipped with one Type III PC card slot. In 2001, Sony will ship a PC Card Ethernet adapter so that the PS2 can connect directly to the Internet via a cable modem, Sony's Kutaragi said. At the same time, the vendor will sell a high-capacity hard drive for the PS2, he added.

Though it is unclear what kinds of network services Sony is planning, Kutaragi said that he sees the PS2 as a new distribution system for music and movies. Sony Music Entertainment's (Japan) CEO Shigeo Maruyama told IDG News Service that his company is readying Internet music services for the PS2, but he would not provide details.

The deep black and neon blue console was designed by Teiyu Goto, the chief art director of Sony's Creative Center and the company's highest profile designer. Goto, who learned his craft designing televisions, was also the creator of the first PlayStation and Sony's Vaio PCs, which are known for their innovative designs.

Sony plans to ship 1 million of the consoles in the first two days of sales, a target NRI's Shiino calls "too ambitious". He said that without a super-hit game title, like another sequel to Sony's popular Final Fantasy software, the company will struggle to hit that mark.

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