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After a disappointingly anti-climactic reveal at E3, Sony's PSPgo finally arrives on retail shelves this week - or at least, on the shelves of the majority of retailers who are supporting the device, while a fringe of refuseniks continue to decline to sell a console they'll never be able to sell games for.
This unseemly spat with a small group of retailers is far from the biggest pothole on the PSPgo's rough road to launch. The console, its functionality and its price point have been confusing, annoying and disappointing a broad cross-section of consumers, market commentators and industry professionals since the system first took a bow in Los Angeles.
The most obvious and oft-repeated criticism of the platform is the most simple - it offers no upgrade path for existing PSP owners. If you've bought a PSP previously, and own some UMDs for the machine, forget about the PSPgo. Lacking a UMD drive, it won't be able to play your discs - and after hinting at a service which would swap UMD copies for digital downloads, Sony has now announced that it'll do nothing of the sort. An offer of a few free games from a limited list for previous PSP owners is fairly weak compensation (and so far available only in Europe).
Of course, having to re-purchase content in a new format isn't an entirely new experience for consumers - although we've had it easy in recent years, since our CDs could be ripped to create MP3s, and our DVDs play perfectly happily on our Blu-ray players. One could compare the move from UMD to digital download as being similar to moving from a tape Walkman to a CD Walkman - same content, slightly improved user experience, but you had to buy all your albums again.
That's not a defence which is likely to calm any of the consumers annoyed at Sony's back-pedalling on the whole UMD conversion issue, though. The affair stings all the more because it carries such a heavy burden of "I told you so" for many consumers and professionals alike. UMD has been utterly despised since the outset, marked out as a doomed format since the day it first crawled, ill-conceived and unloved, onto store shelves.
The reality has always been that UMD sucks battery life, contributes to massive load delays and makes the console ridiculously noisy for a handheld. Sony argued its corner for years, and even now protests that it will continue to support UMD-toting PSP owners with the PSP-3000 hardware. For now, that's fair - but it's still obvious that PSPgo is a major step down the road to obsolescence for the format, and it doesn't change the fact that if you want Sony's new console, you'd better be prepared to pay for your games and movies again.
This isn't necessarily an insurmountable problem for the PSPgo. After all, if the hardware is attractive enough, consumers will, ultimately, suck down their pride, open their wallets and buy into the new system. Good hardware design and compelling features can overcome almost any level of consumer antipathy, in the long run.
It remains to be seen whether the market judges the PSPgo to be worthy on those grounds. The machine is certainly attractive enough, handily ticking the boxes marked slim, light and sleek. Personally, I remain totally disappointed by Sony's lack of foresight regarding additional functions for the system - including things like a camera, microphone or GPS module as part of the hardware would have seriously set this apart from its predecessor. Like much else with the device, this feels like a missed opportunity.
Again, I can see the counter-argument to that point - that including those devices (tiny, inexpensive hardware, to the extent that even Apple's low-priced and diminutive iPod Nano now sports a camera) would have pushed the cost of the system up. Perhaps that's the case - it certainly brings us neatly to the question of cost, at least.
The PSPgo is too expensive. Vastly too expensive, for what the system is - nothing more than an existing PSP in a nice case, with the UMD drive removed and a bit of cheap flash memory slapped on in its place. There's precious little extra functionality, no new headline feature to shout about - no camera, no touch-screen, no GPS, no 3G connectivity. It's just a PSP with a big memory card and a nice bit of industrial design. In itself, that's not a terrible thing - but what I've just described should be positioned at the same price point as the previous PSP models, which should then receive a price drop to open up a new market segment. Instead, PSPgo is being positioned in a "premium" segment of the handheld market - a segment of which, to be blunt, I'm not convinced of the existence, at least not in any great scale.
The irony is that the question marks and uncertainty around PSPgo contrast most strongly with another recent Sony hardware release - the universally acclaimed PS3 Slim. This was exactly how hardware redesigns and relaunches should be handled. Announced only weeks before hitting retail, the PS3 Slim created huge excitement in a short space of time. Recognising that it brought with it a smaller form factor and minor benefits rather than revolutionary change, Sony positioned it alongside a price drop for the whole console range - and reaped the reward in the form of vast, vast sales. Along with fantastic software like Uncharted 2, it has set the PS3 up for a fantastic winter season - probably its healthiest quarter in the market so far.
The PS3 Slim launch showed Sony firing on all cylinders, understanding its market and its competencies and creating a product, business model and marketing drive that drove the PlayStation - temporarily, at least - right back to the top spot in this business. The fire and intelligence that drove Sony through the PS1 and PS2 eras is still there - but on PSPgo, it seems to be utterly lacking.
Upstream consumers don't like it, because it offers them no upgrade path. It's too overpriced for downstream consumers. It desperately wants to compete with iPhone, yet balks at emulating any of the functionality that would allow it to do so. It feels like a solid concept that was tugged in every direction by competing needs and ideas within Sony, and has ended up unloved and directionless. The market may well judge otherwise - for Sony's sake, I hope it does - but from where I'm standing, PSPgo looks like an extremely weak launch. This was an opportunity to redefine the PSP and bring the fight to the doorstep of the firm's rivals in handheld gaming - but that opportunity, sadly, has sailed right past.
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