The PlayStation Phone Is Making a Comeback... Sort of
Sony's patented controller may seem like low-hanging fruit, but the move speaks volumes for the future
It's those low-key, under-the-radar developments in the digital entertainment market that can sometimes lead to tectonic shifts in said market's direction, at least as far as some of its most important players are concerned - developments like e.g. the publishing of a rather pedestrian-looking patent by Sony Interactive Entertainment a few days ago. The technical description and drawings of the patent can be easily dismissed as just those of a simple accessory already offered by several other manufacturers. The implications of the same patent, though, may prove to be far wider in the not too distant future.
The patent describes something along the lines of a Razer Kishi for Android or a Backbone One for iOS: an external controller that attaches itself to a smartphone and can transform the latter to a Switch-like gaming device. The way this is depicted in the patent clearly indicates that Sony's accessory will be shaped just like a DualShock controller, with all the buttons and sticks placed exactly where they reside on a PlayStation4's joypad. In addition to those, the patent speaks of a "shaft portion that can be tilted by the user, detecting the tilting direction and amount". This refers, of course, to gyroscopic control.
The drawings are eerily reminiscent of a product that was heavily rumored for years but never materialized, the fabled "PlayStation Phone": a smartphone that Ericsson, freshly acquired by Sony back in late 2011, would supposedly design as a gaming device first and foremost, unlike the released Sony-Ericsson Xperia Play (which had tried to be a smartphone that also offered gamepad-like controls and failed miserably). The "PlayStation Phone" either took too long to be developed or someone at Sony realized that without a solid software strategy backing such a device it was doomed to fail too, so it never actually found its way to the consumer market.
Ten years is a very long time in the tech world and the entertainment business, though, so Sony is now planning to enter the mobile gaming space under totally different circumstances, in a totally different manner. The Japanese company is not going to try and sell a dedicated handheld or mobile gaming device this time around - even a successor to the PlayStation Vita seems highly unlikely at this point - but, rather, gaming software and gaming services. Sony Interactive Entertainment's CEO, Jim Ryan, has already confirmed as much back in May. The rationale behind the move is that PlayStation franchises are already popular but they can expand to new markets and audiences through smartphones or tablets, helping the company increase sales of products and services long-term.
While there've been no announcements on the matter since then, Sony is clearly preparing for major moves in the next four months: a few weeks ago it was confirmed that the company hired the former head of Apple Arcade - Apple's game subscription service - Nicola Sebastiani, to lead Sony's newly formed mobile division out of San Mateo, California. The annual report of Sony Interactive Entertainment to shareholders back in spring mentioned that they can expect the company to enter the mobile gaming market during the same fiscal year, ending March 31st. So it might not be long before we have some news about all this (during CES 2022 in January maybe?).
In any case, there's a more important reason why a simple patent such as the one described earlier may mean more than it might seem at first: Sony has been slowly but methodically re-positioning itself throughout 2021 in a way that would facilitate a major shift for the PlayStation brand. Many of the necessary pieces are now in place: the company owns some of the most valuable intellectual properties in gaming, it offers a quality, dependable game streaming service in the form of PlayStation Now (which is already accessible via Windows computers along with PlayStation models), it's been taking many major PS4 games to the PC world and is already offering PS4/PS5 games to mobile devices through the Remote Play function present on both.
It's not hard to imagine, then, Sony announcing PlayStation Now for Android soon, as well as a number of famous PlayStation franchises in the form of native iOS and/or Android mobile games. An accessory like the one detailed on this recent patent would be great for that. The company could also offer some sort of cross-play between PS Now users (regardless of the system they choose to use), as well as any number of apps/games that could work in a manner that's complementary to top PS4/PS5 games (a companion app for Gran Turismo 7 or an app allowing guest players participate in races maybe?). It all depends on how much Sony is willing to invest in this new effort to expand the PlayStation brand beyond its home entertainment systems. Not long now, then!