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Sony’s decision to delay the launch of its next generation PlayStation 3 video games console in Europe, Asia and Australia until March next year is a big blow to video game enthusiasts – many of whom have delayed purchasing rival machines to wait for the PS3.

However, it also could have an impact on the emerging battle between Sony’s Blu-ray high-definition DVD format and the rival HD DVD format backed by Toshiba and Microsoft, among others.

On Tuesday, in the wake of Sony’s announcement, video game forums and blogs were abuzz with speculation about the implications of the delay.

As TechDigest, a UK-based consumer electronics blog, noted: “The obvious implication is that it’s going to be a bumper Christmas for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and, particularly, Nintendo’s Wii.

“A four-month delay might not sound like much but it might nudge thousands of gamers who’ve held off buying a 360 to see how PS3 shaped up. Another obvious point is [that Sony will miss] the lucrative pre-Christmas market [when] parents buy new consoles for their kids, and who’ll now face a choice between a 360 or a Wii.”

The European launch delay will also throw a spanner in the works of the video games industry, which was gearing up for a bumper Christmas holiday season.

All the big publishers have titles coming out for PS3’s launch and, while Sony is sticking with the November launch date for the PS3 in North America and Japan, games sales elsewhere could be seriously impacted.

But the biggest question mark hangs over what impact the delay will have on the DVD format battle.

Toshiba and the backers of the HD DVD standard got a headstart when they launched the first HD DVD players and movie titles three months ago in the US. Meanwhile, Microsoft and Toshiba plan to launch an add-on HD DVD player for the Xbox 360 later this year.

But the Blu-ray consortium – backed by Sony, Pioneer, Dell and most of the Hollywood studios – were counting on the launch of the PS3, which incorporates a built-in Blu-ray disc player, to give their rival format a dramatic pre-Christmas boost. Although there are already a few stand-alone Blu-ray players in the market from several manufacturers, including Samsung, the Korean electronics company, the PS3 has always been seen as Sony’s not-so-secret weapon in what many consumer electronics industry executives and analysts fear could turn into a rerun of the 1980s VHS-
Betamax video war.

While HD DVD represents an evolutionary approach to producing high-definition players and discs, Blu-ray is seen by many as a more
radical technology which, although capable of producing superior results, is more difficult and costly to manufacture.

Significantly, Sony yesterday identified problems in the production of the blue lasers that are the core of the Blu-ray technology as being the root cause of the PS3 delay.

Ken Kutaragi, who is responsible for the PlayStation business, said he had been informed by Sony engineers in July that they were facing problems in mass producing the blue laser diodes used to enable the PS3 to play Blu-ray discs.

“We have faced up to the challenge of many things, such as the cell chip [the complex main chip that powers the PS3] but for one key component we are having more trouble,” said Mr Kutaragi, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment. He said the problem had to do with contamination during mass production, which had not been a problem during testing.

The PS3 is dependent on Sony being able to deliver the blue laser diodes, which few companies can make. “Nobody can mass produce blue laser diodes,” Mr Kutaragi said. “If there is product available somewhere, we want it.”

When Sony Computer Entertainment realised that the delay in mass producing blue-laser diodes could not be overcome in time to meet its shipment schedule, it considered air-freighting the video consoles to overseas markets.

However, with its many components, the PS3 weighs 5kg on its own and 7kg when in its box. “So, there is no way to get the PS3 to overseas markets [in time],” Mr Kutaragi said.

As a result Sony decided to give priority to the two biggest markets – North America and Japan. It was particularly important to stick to the launch date for North America – November 17 – in order to hit the crucial Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas sales period, Mr Kutaragi said.

He denied speculation that Sony was facing problems with other PS3 components, such as the cell chip, known as a supercomputer on a chip, and the graphics chip.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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