Microsoft will launch its new console the Xbox 360 at midnight on Monday in North America, with games industry observers predicting it will have a clear lead of a year before rivals Sony and Nintendo launch their next-generation products globally.

Sony has guided analysts to expect its PlayStation 3 in the second quarter of 2006, while Nintendo's Revolution is due to appear some time in the second half.

But major games publishers developing titles for Microsoft's rivals appear to be geared to having them ready for release at the end of next year. ?They probably wouldn't have products much before the [November Thanksgiving] holiday, if they make Christmas of next year, we would be happy,? said one senior publishing executive, who did not wish to be named.

Microsoft's debut in consoles with the original Xbox suffered when it arrived 18 months after Sony launched its PlayStation 2. Although more than 22m Xboxes have been bought, it has consistently trailed Sony, which has sold more than 80m PS2s.

A year's lead over Sony means it could have sold 10m consoles worldwide, according to industry estimates, by the time Sony launches in Europe and North America. Sony is expected to have a limited launch in Japan next May.

Citigroup analysts said in a report this month that ?the readiness level of [Western] publishers as well as technical constraints at Sony? meant ?most investors currently understand that a broad spring launch is not on the cards and are looking for a [Thanksgiving] holiday 2006 launch date?.

Microsoft expects to sell up to 3m units in the first three months the 360 launches in Europe on December 2 and Japan on December 10 with pricing initially limiting it to gaming fanatics.

?When the 360 can cost $550 [with accessories] and $60 for a game and a current Xbox or PS2 can be had for less than $100, it's a no-brainer for families new to consoles to buy current generation,? says Ankarino Lara, a director at the Gamespot website for industry news.

He says some of the 17 titles at launch are not worth the premium over the $50 or less games made for the original Xbox, but Microsoft's Project Gotham Racing, Kameo: Elements of Power and Activision's Call of Duty 2 fully explore the high-definition technology.

?Our four launch titles are $60, but the amount of quality we are delivering has to be the most value per hour of any entertainment media besides television,? Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Activision, told the FT.

?High definition makes the games absolutely stunning,? said John Schappert, a vice-president at Electronic Arts, the world's biggest games publisher.

?There is improved movement of the characters and you can see details such as sweat rolling down their faces.?

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