January 5, 2005 2:45 PM PST

Sony vague on PSP American launch

LAS VEGAS--The PlayStation Portable will be available in North America any month now. Honest.

That was about as specific as Sony executives got at a Wednesday Consumer Electronics Show press conference billed as the continental coming-out party for the hotly anticipated handheld game player, which went on sale last month in Japan.

Kaz Hirai, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, said the PSP "most likely" will go on sale in North America in late March, at a price still to be announced.

Anyone looking for specifics had to settle for hyperbole, as Hirai touted the PSP as a category-busting device that wouldn't compete for attention and pocket space with successful franchises such as the iPod and Nintendo's Game Boy family.

"PSP will elevate portable entertainment out of the handheld gaming ghetto, and Sony is the only company that can do it," he said. "PSP will be a disruptor in the portable entertainment space."

Sony revealed plans for the PSP last year, positioning it as potential breakthrough machine that would do for digital media what the Walkman did for analog music.

But the PSP has been a difficult birth for Sony, with the company dogged by development and production issues that pushed back the device's North American introduction and limited its Japanese launch last month to 200,000 units.

Besides a paucity of available units, the PSP's introduction in Japan was accompanied by questions about the device's battery--good for four to six hours of game playing between charges--and support from developers. The device appeared in Japan with only five available titles.

The PSP brings Sony into a tough market long dominated by Nintendo's Game Boy devices. Nintendo is looking to expand its lead with the new DS, and advanced handheld game players with capabilities such as wireless networking and a touch-sensitive screen.

Nintendo launched the DS in North America in late November, and the gadget quickly became the hot item of the holiday shopping season. The company quickly boosted already optimistic sales estimates to predict worldwide sales of 5 million units by March 31, the end of the company's fiscal year.

Hirai spent most of his talk touting the multimedia capabilities of the PSP, which can play back music, movies and video stored on flash memory cards in Sony's Memory Stick format. He said the company is working with music and movie companies to release titles on the new Universal Media Disc (UMD) optical media format used by the PSP, but no deals have been announced yet.

"This is the first product to really deliver on the convergence mantra," Hirai said.

Oddly enough, the PSP won praise at a CES panel earlier in the day for not trying to do too much. Warren Wall, executive producer for leading game publisher Electronic Arts, said the company is confident the PSP will be a smash because of Sony's focus on games.

"The most successful devices are those that know what they are," he said. "iPod knows it's a great music player. PSP knows it's a great game machine. Both of them can do other things, but those aren't critical to their success."

 

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