Will a PlayStation-Android Partnership Hurt Apple?

Wednesday night, Sony (s sne) unveiled its next-generation portable console, dubbed (appropriately enough) the Next Generation Portable, or NGP. Alongside the new hardware unveil, it made the more ground-breaking revelation that it would be expanding the availability of PlayStation software beyond its own devices to Android handsets.

PlayStation Suite is what Sony is calling its hardware-independent gaming platform, which will see ports of PlayStation Portable titles (and likely PS1 legacy titles, too, pending rights negotiations) make their way to Android (s goog) tablets and smartphones. Sony didn’t close the door to the possibility that the suite might eventually make its way to other mobile operating systems, but it’s clear that Android is its only current partner.

The first good example of how an android handset maker might make use of Sony’s new gaming platform is the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play (s eric), which Engadget just looked at in a lengthy exclusive preview. The PlayStation Suite portion of the device’s software was not yet active, but since the Play is essentially a PSPgo with cellular connectivity, you can imagine how it might work.

PlayStation Suite helps both Sony and Google address the threat of iOS (s aapl) in mutually beneficial ways. Google is having trouble sourcing, securing and surfacing quality gaming titles for Android devices (it’s one of the few areas where even many Android devotees agree iOS is ahead). A PlayStation game market ensures high-quality content and a deep library (especially if Sony delves into the PS1 back-catalog), and the new PlayStation Suite is designed with attracting developers in mind. Pricing might be the only stumbling block, since Sony seemed unwilling to lower prices with its previous foray into digital distribution on the PSPgo.

Sony probably gets the better deal, however. The company gains access to the rapidly-growing smartphone market, without having to produce and market hardware of its own. Through Sony Ericsson, the company can provide custom-tailored devices, but it doesn’t have to worry about competing with the reach of the iPhone, since it can potentially reach any customer using an Android handset from any manufacturer (depending onOS compatibility issues, of course).

While the partnership will be good for both Sony and Google, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be bad for Apple. For all of Sony’s gaming chops, its attempts to mirror Apple’s success with apps via the PSP Mini titles (often iOS ports) it offers as direct downloads have gone relatively unnoticed. And the PSP wasn’t exactly a rousing success among gamers, at least when compared to the Nintendo DS, so why expect it to catch on with non-gaming or casual gaming smartphone users?

There’s also the possibility that Sony could be trying to get the PlayStation Suite to appear on iOS devices as well as Android ones. Since that would put it under the eyes of 160 million potential new customers (the PSP, in all its iterations, has sold only 62 million units during its entire lifetime) — and Sony seems quick to describe PS Suite as “hardware-neutral” — I think that’s something the company is exploring. But would Apple even play along? Sony would clearly want to distribute all titles through its own app and store, which would run up against Apple’s in-app purchasing and 70/30 revenue split. Apple won’t compromise for Sony, any more than it has for newspaper publishers regarding subscriptions.

I predict that Apple will continue to be happy to go it alone, appealing directly to developers with its own App Store distribution framework. Google might get through to gamers with PlayStation on Android, and Sony might reach a broader cross-section of consumers, but the deal alone won’t be enough to stem the growth of iOS, as either a gaming or a smartphone platform.

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