Games developers and players alike had something to celebrate this weekend - Sony launched its new PlayStation2 games console on Saturday morning in Japan to large crowds and excited domestic media coverage that easily eclipsed that of Windows 2000 just two weeks earlier.
Game enthusiasts, including some from overseas who had traveled especially for the event, began queuing in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district from Friday evening to be sure of snapping up one of the 39,800 yen (£230) priced consoles on Saturday morning. In the rest of the country, game fans were just as eager to get their hands on the console and thousands thronged retailers as they opened on Saturday morning.
What excites the majority of these early buyers is the new gaming technology built into the PlayStation2. Based on a microprocessor co-developed with Toshiba dubbed the "Emotion Engine", the console boasts a performance of 6.2G floating point operations per second (flops) and a graphics processor capable of displaying 75 million polygons per second. These technologies bring the most realistic rendering yet of games on consumer systems.
But it will likely be for its additional capabilities that the PlayStation 2 makes its lasting impact. Based on DVD (digital video disk), the system doubles as a DVD-Video player and also comes with a selection of ports which, although of little use now, could make the device the center of the living room entertainment system in a few years.
These include an iLink port, Sony's brand name for the IEEE1394 interface, which allows the unit to be connected to a digital home network, a USB (universal serial bus) port for connections on to other computer related devices and a PC Card slot which SCEI plans to use for connections to future broadband network adapters. Once a suitable network is available, SCEI plans to offer games on demand and later video and audio to PlayStation2 customers but such a network is still not ready.
Speaking at the PlayStation Festival near Tokyo last month, SCEI President Ken Kutaragi predicted a 2001 broadband launch date for Japan but was vague when asked what technology - digital cable, wireless or leased line - would provide the path to the home. It may have problems launching a cable-based service after rival Sega signed a string of deals with major cable network operators in late January.
An alternative option is wireless. Parent company Sony is currently busy building a nationwide wireless network but capacity could be a problem as the parent is eyeing using its network for on-demand audio and video services. An SCEI spokesman at the PlayStation Festival was also keen to point out the network is that of Sony and not SCEI.
An alternative would be to fall back on the current narrowband infrastructure but SCEI has shunned that route in favor of waiting for broadband.
"We have absolutely no interest in narrowband," said SCEI spokesman Benjamin Guernsey, speaking at the PlayStation Festival. "There are no networks we are really happy with now."
The console's inability to offer network gaming, something that the competing Saturn console from Sega offers out of the box, is unlikely to put many buyers off. Sony's slick marketing has already sold the console, in the mind if not in stores, to millions of customers and, should a real demand for narrowband access become apparent, SCEI expects a third-party developer will produce suitable equipment.