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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 07:59 GMT
The rise of the handheld console
By Diarmuid Mitchell
BBC News

Sony PSP console
Sony's PSP is an MP3 and video player as well as a games console
Back in 2003 Sony's Ken Kutaragi, "the father of the Play Station", made a bold prediction.

Announcing Sony's plans to enter the portable gaming market, he claimed the PlayStation Portable (PSP) would become "the Walkman for the 21st Century".

At that time conventional wisdom dictated that any attempt to break into the handheld market, dominated for so long by Nintendo, was doomed to failure.

To suggest that Sony's console would not only make an impact on the market, but also match the success of the 1980s cultural icon that was the Walkman seemed to argue a self-confidence bordering on arrogance.

After all, Sony shipped more than 50m Walkman units in the first ten years of production, reaching a total of 150m units produced by 1995.

The name Walkman has even joined that select group of brands like Hoover and Xerox whose name defines the product.

So four years down the line has the PSP lived up to "Papa" Kutaragi's prediction? Has it succeeded in breaking Nintendo's apparently unshakeable hold on the market?

Market domination

Since its release the PSP has seen steady growth with global shipments increasing from just over half a million units in 2004 to a total of 24.7m units by the end of 2006.

Impressive figures, but still not enough to reverse Nintendo's market dominance.

Nintendo has shipped more than 35m units of the DS and DS Lite consoles worldwide since launching in 2004, smashing European records for console sales on the way.

Features: MP3 and video playback, web browser
Processor: 333MHz MIPS R4200
Memory: 32 MB
Connectivity: 100ft (30metres) local range, Wi-Fi

Features: Touch screen, embedded chat software
Processor: One ARM9 and one ARM7
Memory: 4MB
Connectivity: 100ft (30metres) local range, Wi-Fi

So why has the mighty PSP failed to overtake its less powerful rival?

Margaret Robertson, editor of Edge gaming magazine, believes that one factor could be that the sheer power and versatility of the PSP caused more confusion than Sony expected when it first launched.

"Sony thought it was a straightforward and compelling offer of a gadget that can do music, videos, films and gaming," she says.

"But the problem with that is that consumers either fell into a category where they didn't really want all of that or they were technologically savvy enough to have commitments to other mediums, particularly memory formats."

Sony was not alone in finding the early market reluctant to embrace a new console; Nintendo also had problems when it first unveiled the DS.

"It wasn't a great-looking gadget," said Ms Robertson.

"In the West nobody was quite sure what the DS was trading on for its first year. It didn't seem to be trading on that Nintendo nostalgia feeling for the core fans."

Shock of the new

Consumers familiar with Nintendo's classic games were initially wary of the new and unknown aspects of the DS: the touch-screen game-play, the unconventional games.

But in the last two years prices have fallen and gamers have adapted to new concepts.

Nintendogs for the Nintendo DS
Games like Nintendogs have boosted sales of the DS console

DS owners in particular have embraced new genres of games that seemed unlikely to succeed when they first appeared.

The popularity of Nintendo's so-called Touch! Generations games such as Dr Kawashima's Brain Training and Nintendogs are cited by Nintendo's European Marketing Director Laurent Fischer as the major factor in driving console sales.

Paul Jackson, Director General of the UK's Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers' Association (Elspa), suggests that the wide appeal of handheld games on all platforms has broadened the gaming demographic, making handheld consoles the UK's biggest selling hardware systems of 2006.

"Many people who would perhaps not have considered gaming have got involved," says Mr Jackson.

"And many people who are passionate have been able to change the way they game within a more social context."

PSP games are also overcoming initial difficulties.

While early PSP titles may have once been viewed by some as the poor relations of successful Play Station 2 (PS2) franchises more recent releases such as GTA: Liberty City Stories have been strong enough to cross back over to PS2.

More than a game

So where next for portable devices?

Sony's vision for the PSP is based on connectivity and integration with the PlayStation 3 (PS3).

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe spokesman Jonathan Fargher says the PSP will come into its own when connected wirelessly to the PS3.

Nintendo DS Lite
Some commentators criticised the Nintendo DS's looks

The Remote Play functionality in PSP and PS3 currently allows the PSP user to wirelessly access pictures, videos and audio content stored on the PS3 up to a range of around 25-30 metres.

But Sony has big plans for connecting its devices.

"We're hoping to incorporate that functionality in the very near future - from a local level at the moment to a global level probably within the next six months," said Mr Fargher.

The idea is to use the PSP to access the PS3 at home from anywhere in the world with a wireless hotspot.

"If I have my MP3 Walkman or my iPod, or digital camera connected to PS3 then I can access those devices too," said Mr Fargher.

With a PSP camera and GPS device in the pipeline, Ken Kutaragi must be a proud father, but has his prediction that the PSP would become the Walkman of the 21st Century come true?

Apple's Steve Jobs might have something to say about that. The iPod has shipped more than 88m units since 2002, with 21m of those manufactured in the first fiscal quarter of 2007 alone.

It looks like the PSP still has some way to go if it is to live up to Mr Kutaragi's promise.

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