Ken Kutaragi’s keynote speech at the Tokyo Game Show this year was, to put it mildly, a bit of an odd one - but there were two big pieces of news in there. One was a price drop for the 20GB PS3 in Japan, and the other, which affects the rest of the world a bit more, was the announcement that the 20GB model is also going to have a HDMI video connector, which was previously only intended for the 60GB model.
That’s good news, obviously - it means that if you buy the basic version of PS3, you can still hook it up to even the most high-end of flat-screen TVs and get the absolute best picture quality possible. On the other hand, isn’t it a bit late in the day to run around changing the specification of the machine?
Worldwide studios boss Phil Harrison admits that he doesn’t know exactly when the decision was made, but he can shed some light on the thinking behind it. “The reason for the change was in reaction to a market trend, which is that much more displays are being sold with HDMI, earlier, than had been previously forecast,” he explains to us. “Not just Sony, but all the other TV manufacturers.”
In fact, according to Harrison, the decision to move HDMI onto the basic model wasn’t really a surprise at all - it just happened faster than anyone expected. “Although we didn’t say it at E3, I think that the unspoken assumption was that we would always merge everything into HDMI eventually. We just made that decision earlier.”
That’s all very well but if you’re changing the spec of the machine just weeks away from launch, doesn’t that tend to imply that you haven’t actually started building the things yet? Which doesn’t bode well for stocks of the unit at launch (already projected to be thin on the ground, even despite the European delay into next March). According to Harrison, it’s not quite that simple.
“The criticial question,” he says, “is not ‘when do you start manufacturing’, but ‘when do you start assembly’. The HDMI port - whether it’s enabled or not on the machine is an assembly issue, not a manufacturing issue. The parts have been procured, clearly, in anticipation of this announcement. It’s not like we’re going to make a decision of that magnitude and then call up our suppliers and say, ‘oh, can we have a few more HDMI ports?’ Clearly this had been well planned.”
Well planned or not, it’s obvious that Sony has had some big problems with manufacturing. Looking past the question of the HDMI port to the bigger picture, it’s clear that with only 500,000 units available for launch and the European date pushed back four months, Sony has over-stretched itself. Isn’t that a bit, well, worrying?
Harrison nods. “There’s no denying that we’ve had some very public challenges,” he says. “Today, it looks like a very difficult situation - but in the weeks, months and years to come, this will pale into zero.”
“Yes, we have overreached in production of the Blu-Ray component - I can’t deny that. But that’s the price you pay for adopting brand new, leading-edge technologies that will be future proof. We will resolve those issues - we are already catching up. We will continue to catch up on the production, and as you know, we haven’t changed our full-year forecast of six million units, so we’re only talking about a ramp-up issue. We’re not talking about the fundamental design of the product itself.”
Taking the long view, there’s a ring of truth about that. Few consoles have launched without a fairly hefty dose of problems in the first few months - although for the god-knows-how-many people who expected to have a PS3 in their hands this Christmas and now almost certainly won’t, that won’t be much comfort in the next few months.