Playing with the Net

More than a few people made a pilgrimage to Tokyo on the first weekend in March. Most of them were only after the most realistic way to cut up a monster and see blood splatter. But at the same time, they may have seen a big part of the Internet’s future.

Sony Corp. introduced its newest PlayStation2 game machine March 4, and by the end of the weekend had sold about 980,000 units for the equivalent of US$370 each. CNN and other news organizations interviewed people who had flown in from the U.S. just to get a copy. In response, Microsoft Corp. pre-announced by 18 months or more its own entry into the fray – the prosaically-named X-Box, which will be Microsoft’s first computer.

By next year, Sony will have a broadband Internet adapter available for the PlayStation2 that could quickly make the game machine the most prevalent Internet device around. Sony expects to sell some eight million game machines in Japan by year-end. The PlayStation2 is expected to go on sale this autumn in the U.S. and Europe, where many millions more will be sold by the end of the Christmas buying season.

The PlayStation2 is an example of a new generation of machine that is much more than just a game platform. It can play CDs and DVDs, and will include a browser that can support basic Web access. It will also support Internet-based multiplayer games.

Microsoft had to react. If Web browsing becomes just another game on a less than-US$400 device plugged in to a TV, then Microsoft’s WebTV and software for home computers are threatened.

As described, the X-Box is an impressive device with a 600MHz CPU, a 300MHz graphics processor, 64MB of memory, DVD support and an 8GB disk drive. It puts the PlayStation2 to shame, but it is not due to go on the market until late 2001 (assuming it ships on time, a semi-warranted assumption at best with Microsoft products). That should give Sony a chance to develop a PlayStation3.

But as described, the Internet of the PlayStation2 is not the Internet of its fathers. It is an Internet that has far fewer features, applications and possibilities. It is the Web as the Internet. Sony is not alone in meaning “Web” when it says “Internet.” There are a few companies promising “free Internet,” when they actually mean free Web. (By the way, “free” services are only so if you do not value your time and are willing to read all the ads that come with these services.)

This simplification is a major part of the future of the Net, and we will all lose because of it. We will lose a big part of the ability to innovate and come up with the ideas that will lead to PlayStation10.

Disclaimer: Harvard is still working on Harvard1, so the above is my observation.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].

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