OPINION: The handheld battleground is drawn

It may have lost many men in the battle of 2010, but General Wii still stands tall on the battlefield that is taking place under the world’s TVs. From the West, swelled by year-on-year gains in American followers, the Xbox 360 continues to wear down Wii’s lead. From the East, and enjoying growing success in Europe, Captain PS3 has recovered from its slow start to occupy an ever-growing territory in the living room.

It’s a battle we’re familiar with, and a war that looks like it might continue well into this decade.

But attentions are now turning to a new conflict.

Down the hallway, hanging from the coat rack next to the front door Sergeant iPhone has been piling the pressure on Colonel DS, who in turn has got himself a little 3D upgrade in an effort to swing the tide. Major PSP, on the other hand, had quietly retreated deep into the East and seemingly abandoned all hope of Western conquest. And then there’s Corporal Windows Phone 7, petulantly tossing the odd stone from the sidelines in an effort to try and grab a bit of attention.

Fairly clear cut, then?

The thing is, Major PSP is back. He’s bigger, far more powerful and has even brought an extra analogue stick with which to beat his opponents. His biggest trick, however, is the army standing behind him.

The army of Google Android.

Unrivalled portable computing power is one thing. It’s an important thing, of course. A look at the PSP2 – sorry, NGP – specs shows a handheld that truly is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It. Is. An. Absolute. Beast.

But that’s not the important bit.

Even the news that Sony is to launch yet another proprietary storage format in the form of a new "small flash memory based card", one which it hopes will eradicate the bitter taste left by UMD, is really not the central debate.

But Sony’s decision to launch a Google Android compatible games platform? Yes, that’s the important bit.

Apple iOS vs Windows Phone 7 vs Android/PlayStation vs 3DS

Sony’s boldest move here is to do what none of its portable competitors have dared – to open up its platform. Its integration with Android opens up PlayStation to around a quarter of the world’s total smartphone market.

There are mitigating factors, of course. It would be foolish to presume that all Android owners will by default become PlayStation Suite users. And with PSone emulation already available for free on Android handsets, Sony will have to throw in some pretty enticing extras (like Trophies, perhaps – a confirmed feature) to tempt users away from piracy.

But nonetheless, for the first time it means that the (inevitably very expensive) NGP really is just one small element of the Portable PlayStation offer. The PSone has a rich catalogue of titles and for the first time Sony is going to be able to market these to a truly huge audience. An audience, in fact, around the same size as the Apple iPhone market, along with the world’s already huge PlayStation fan base.

It also means that the NGP itself can tap into two very different sectors. On the one hand it promises PS3-like gaming for the traditional market. Titles like Call of Duty, Uncharted and Killzone will certainly ensure that NGP sells millions of units on its first day.

On the other hand, integration with Google means that the device suddenly becomes a viable option for those whose tastes in portable gaming have changed. And the NGP’s front and rear touch pads mean that the machine will be just as comfortable for playing Angry Birds as it will any 3D FPS.

The strategy is all the cleverer when you consider that it will allow Sony to fight the war on different fronts. The NGP can stand toe-to-toe with Nintendo’s 3DS as a standalone portable gaming machine. Been playing PES 2012 at home on your PS3? Then why wait until you get home from work to carry one – just pick up your NGP and carry on where you left off on the train. The NGP will offer a truly compromise-free portable gaming experience.

But at the same time Sony’s unlikely union with Google means that Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 all of a sudden looks that bit less appealing. PSN integration, Trophies – there’s two of WP7’s USPs (in the form of XBL and Achievements) taken right there.

For the serious gamer Sony’s proposition could even tempt one away from iOS, too. The ability to couple app-like touch gaming with console-like joypad gaming on the go is very easy to sell.

There’s a long way to go, of course. 3DS and its ability to ride the current 3D enthusiasm still stands alone as a unique proposition. And taking Apple on in any battle is daunting for even the largest of conglomerates. Don’t forget, too, that while PSPs success continues unabated in Japan, in western markets its reputation remains tarnished.

And the question still remains about the NGP’s target market. Its premium features suggest a premium price, and a premium price suggests an affluent user. And affluent user who probably already has an iPad and may be just as happy playing Bejeweled or Flight Control as they are Metal Gear Solid or Monster Hunter. Perhaps more happy, even.

I said earlier in the month that 2011 would be the year of the handheld. And after this morning it’s looking more exciting than ever.

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