With 50% more graphics capability than the Xbox One, the PS4 will be the most powerful console of its generation. However, as the number of living room devices outpaces consumer income growth, the PS4 won’t compete against the Xbox One alone as a gaming device. It’ll also compete for consumer dollars with the Apple TV, Roku, Boxee, etc. as a general purpose set-top box. Just as the iPhone lead the smartphone revolution initially by being more than just a phone, the winner of the next generation console war will likely be a device that is more than just a console.
The “more than” in the preceding is due to apps, which make the device extensible. And therein lies the rub: under current plans, the PS4 stands to have a much smaller app ecosystem than its competition. The Xbox One’s ability to run Windows 8 apps gives it a significant advantage over the PS4. This is because devs will ultimately be able to target Windows Phone devices, PCs, tablets, and consoles all with (more or less) the same Windows code, while apps will have to be written specifically for the PS4. Therefore, the marginal resources required to support the Xbox One will be much less than those required for the PS4.
Fortunately, Sony has a several options to remedy the situation, because:
- Its x86 architecture makes it essentially a PC that can run any major OS
- Its 8 core CPU and 8 GB of RAM make running multiple OSes simultaneously via virtualization feasible. In this manner, Sony could add another OS to the PS4 without changing the PS4’s OS
- Thanks to Point #1 above, there are many virtualization options available to Sony (I’d pick VMware)
Here are the 3rd party OSes Sony could introduce to the PS4, in order of decreasing likelihood:
Android (Google TV)
- Sony has been a Google TV partner from day one
- Google TV debuted on x86 devices, so this has been done before in some sense
- There is extensive Android support among developers
- With the failure of the Nexus Q and Logitech Revue, Google TV is in need of a high end, mass market, flagship device
- Can be delivered as a firmware update
- It’s free
- Google TV’s UX has been widely panned
- Users would need a Google account in addition to a PSN account for full functionality. This could get confusing.
Ubuntu/ Other Linux
- With desktop Linux all but irrelevant, commercial Linux devs would be happy to get their OS onto a mass market device
- Can be delivered is a firmware update
- It’s free
- Linux is more of a lean-forward than a lean-back solution
- Sony went the Linux route previously with the PS3, only to drop support for it due to security concerns
- Most Linux apps are not intended for living room/home theater use cases, which means their UI/UX is likely to be awkward in those contexts
- Beats Microsoft at their own game: every single Windows app would work on the PS3
- Sony can’t expect Microsoft support
- Windows is an expensive add-on
- Unlikely to be delivered as a firmware update, would probably have to be manually installed
- Leveraging Windows 8 app support requires a Microsoft Account, which results in the same problem seen in Con #3 for Google TV
- Desktop Windows grants users admin rights by default, which might lead to the same security concern Sony had with Linux
All of the above solutions could be made to take advantage of the HDMI-CEC protocol for commanding a cable box via the console and the Playstation Move for gesture based control of the console, thereby granting the PS4 the same feature set as the Xbox One. By adopting a 3rd party OS for apps, Sony would be able to focus more on what it does best – hardware – and leave apps to developers who are better at doing such things.
The main issue with a 3rd party solution is that without end-to-end control of its ecosystem, Sony might find it challenging to keep all of the components aligned in terms of strategy, capability, and future plans.
The PS4’s real ace in the hole here is its hardware superiority, mentioned at the outset. Because both it and the One are x86 devices, they’re both essentially capable of the same software features. Thus, Sony can (theoretically) catch up to the Xbox One in time, but the One will never catch the PS4 in specs unless it’s upgraded in-cycle, which is unlikely.
Sony can still win the specs, games, and apps battle. Will it make the right moves for that?