Why Google needs the PlayStation Phone to succeed

When it comes to consumer-oriented smartphones, there's no greater rivalry than Apple versus Google. With Apple's iOS devices, including the iPhone, selling extraordinarily well and Android catching up in regard to United States market share, it's clear that other phone systems aren't competing on the same level.

There's little doubt why both platforms are popular among the average consumer. Each boasts high-quality audio and video features, a sophisticated web-browsing experience and a diverse library of apps, many of which are free. But when it comes to mobile gaming, there's no question that iOS is the dominant platform.

But with the news of a real, working PlayStation Phone having surfaced, that might not always be the case.

With the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple unwittingly stumbled upon the greatest portable gaming device since Nintendo's DS launched in 2004. With the launch of iOS version 2 and the App Store in 2008, games for the device began to pour in from giants like Gameloft and EA as well as then-unknowns like Lima Sky (of Doodle Jump fame) and Rovio, best known for the definitive smartphone game-developer success story, Angry Birds. And with iOS 4, Apple introduced Game Center, a gaming-based social network that comes with all the sophisticated trappings you'd expect from a serious gaming platform: leaderboards, stat-tracking, achievements, online multiplayer, matchmaking, and so forth.

Android has its fair share of games, but nothing on the level of Apple's mammoth collection. And while it's a given that quantity rarely translated to quality, there haven't been any major breakaway successes on Android to speak of — at least, none that haven't come from greener pastures. This dearth of definitive, breakaway Android apps hasn't gone unnoticed.

So what's holding Android back?

  1. No hardware parity. With its strict, vertically-integrated structure, Apple is the sole manufacturer of devices that run its operating systems. That means that when you buy an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad, every app that says it will work with your platform is guaranteed to work. There's no guesswork as to whether x generation of Android phone from y manufacturer will be able to run a game, let alone run it well. This is alleviated by Android's app return policy, which seems less generous when you consider that it's probably meant to function primarily as a hardware-incompatibility safety net.
  2. Different feature sets. Some Android phones have a physical keyboard. Some don't. And many Android phones have their hardware buttons arranged in a number of different permutations. As a game designer, understanding the features and limitations of your platform are essential for delivering the best-quality experience to as many people as possible. When you can't guarantee such things as a hardware keyboard, it raises tough questions about where to put your money.
  3. Android is only available on phones. Apple's most brilliant tactical move in promoting the iOS platform may have been the production of the iPod Touch -- essentially the iPhone minus the phone. It's a great solution for consumers who want to have access to the features and apps available on the iPhone without signing on to AT&T's gut-wrenching two-year contract. Considering that smartphones are still currently a relatively niche product — more than 70% of mobile phone owners own a so-called "dumb" phone — it makes sense that there's going to be a large cross-section of prospective buyers who want an iPhone-like device without having to navigate the tangled web of attached strings. But there's no phone contract-less Android device currently on the market, which significantly hinders its appeal to teenagers, late-adopters and current smartphone owners.
  4. There's no central gaming identity. Apple's Game Center has become the de-facto gaming network on its devices (though it's by no means the only one — alternatives like OpenFeint and Crystal still work and are still popular). Android, however, has no comparable, comprehensive nexus for its games. While OpenFeint is fully functional on Android, its identity is independent, and it's not something you'll see advertised at a store where prospective phone buyers will be able to learn about it.

Based on what little we know about PlayStation's as-yet-unannounced phone, it seems like it might be the last, best hope for Android to gain a substantial foothold in the mobile gaming world. It's likely that any and all Android-based PlayStation phones would have to adhere to a very strict hardware specification, both inside and out, much like the standardized nature of Apple's iOS devices. So if Sony intends to license out the PlayStation brand and functionality to other phone manufacturers, that will mean more consistent hardware among Android phones, which in turn means greater compatibility and a broader market for Android game developers.

Sony is also the proprietor of PlayStation Network, a strong competitor to gaming networks like Xbox Live and Steam. By integrating mobile phones into that network, Sony would be poised to bring many of those features to its phones, easily matching Apple's Game Center.

And what does a giant corporation like Sony stand to gain from this? For one thing, it means it can circumvent retail outlets for digital sales, earning a greater revenue share from games sold. It's something Sony attempted earlier with its PlayStation Portable, a device that has come to be seen as anything but a definitive success. It also means that, if PlayStation becomes the central gaming identity of Android, Sony's hardware division (namely phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson) stands to gain a significant share of the Android manufacturing market.

Yes, this is all speculation based on a couple minutes of video shot by an anonymous source, but that doesn't change the facts. When it comes to mobile gaming, Apple is the biggest player right now, and Android is going to need a significant breakthrough to stand as iOS's equal. PlayStation might just be the shot in the arm that it needs.