PlayStation 3 launches in Japan

Sony's PlayStation 3 games console made its worldwide debut in Japan on Saturday morning.

Sony Computer Entertainment's (SCEI) PlayStation 3 games console made its worldwide debut in Japan on Saturday morning.

Electronics stores in Tokyo and other cities began selling the console at 7 a.m. At the Bic Camera outlet in Tokyo's Yurakucho district, Ken Kutaragi, president and CEO of SCEI, turned up to hand a console to the first customer in line.

The celebratory scene was different from that an hour earlier, when pushing and shoving threatened safety and shop officials had a hard time keeping customers calm. The shop had refused to let customers queue for the console until 4 a.m., so a large and unorganized crowd of about 1,000 people had built up hours ahead of the launch.

Competition to buy the PlayStation 3 is particularly fierce because of the small number of consoles that have been shipped to retailers across Japan for launch. Sony originally planned to have 2 million consoles ready for launches in Japan, North America, Europe and Australia over the next seven days, but component shortages forced the company to slash launch shipments to 500,000 consoles. It also postponed the European and Australian launches until March next year.

The component in question is the laser that sits at the heart of the Blu-ray Disc drive in the PlayStation 3. Sony decided early on to outfit the new console with a Blu-ray Disc drive for two main reasons: The first is extra data storage capacity offered by Blu-ray Disc, which is five times that of DVD at 25G bytes. The second is the kick it could give the Blu-ray Disc format as a medium for high-definition movies. By the end of the year, the Sony-backed Blu-ray Disc will undoubtedly be in more homes than the rival HD DVD thanks to its place in the PlayStation 3, although whether a significant number of gamers make use of the HD movie function remains to be seen.

At the heart of the console is the Cell processor. The product of several years of development by Sony, Toshiba and IBM, the chip provides the processing power to deliver the stunning graphics that are the main selling point of the console. Other improvements over Sony's current console, the PlayStation 2, include the addition of a hard-disk drive and an upgraded network gaming and communication function. Users can browse the Web on the PS3 and also add other users to a buddy list and see when they are online. It's also possible to send short messages to other users.

With the launch of Sony's product, the high-definition console battle has officially begun. Microsoft launched its Xbox 360, which is also high definition, just under a year ago, and Microsoft expects worldwide shipments to reach 10 million units by the end of this year. The company recently announced an HD DVD drive add-on and this week said it would offer TV shows and movies for download to the unit's hard-disk drive.

Also taking part in the competition is Nintendo, which will launch its Wii console first in North America next week. The Wii doesn't do high definition but is attracting a lot of attention for an innovative wireless remote control that can be swung like a baseball bat or jabbed like a fist to interact with games.

It will be some time before a winner emerges, although some analysts expect that Microsoft's year-long lead in the market and Nintendo's new controller will mean Sony concedes some market share to its competitors.

What's almost certain is that the PlayStation 3 won't be the top selling piece of games hardware during its launch week in Japan. That crown is likely to remain with Nintendo's handheld DS machine. The DS, which is a fraction of the price of the PlayStation 3, sold 180,000 units during the week from Oct. 23 to 29, according to data compiled by Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu. The top console was the PlayStation 2, which sold 22,000 units.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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