When will the next next-generation of game consoles arrive?

This time around, it may take console makers much longer to launch the next round of machines.

Video game console makers have tended to operate on approximately five-year cycles. That is, the manufacturers generally wait about five years between new consoles, give or take a year.

For example, Sony's PlayStation 2 was released in 2000 and its PlayStation 3 in 2006. Microsoft's original Xbox came out in 2001 and its Xbox 360 in 2005. And Nintendo's GameCube first launched in 2001, and its Wii hit store shelves in 2006.

But with the release of the so-called next generation of consoles--with the 2005 release of the Xbox 360 and the 2006 release of the Wii and the PS3--it began to look like the companies might be ready to wait a little longer between cycles.

Of course, Sony has maintained all along that its consoles actually have 10-year lives, and it has a good point: The PS2 is still selling quite well, having moved 124,400 units last month, according to market researcher NPD Group. And Sony clearly expects to produce PS3s well into the next decade.

But as it demonstrated by putting out the PS3 in 2006, the continued life of an existing console hasn't stopped Sony from moving on to a future generation.

So, as we get closer to the two-year anniversary of the launch of the Wii and PS3 and the three-year anniversary of the Xbox 360, it's only natural to wonder whether the next round of machines is on its way. But according to analysts and representatives of the three manufacturers, we shouldn't be holding our collective breath for any imminent announcements.

"This (cycle), I think, lasts longer," said Michael Pachter, a video games industry analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. "I don't think Sony and Microsoft can afford to go back to the drawing board."

More likely, added Pachter, is that Microsoft--and possibly Nintendo--will try to make iterative improvements to their existing consoles, but keep the guts of the machines.

For example, Pachter said, he would expect Microsoft to try to put out a new version of the Xbox 360 that comes with a 500GB or 2TB hard drive and Wi-Fi functionality built in. Currently, hard drives and Wi-Fi are add-ons for the console.

"They'll go back and try to one-up Sony," Pachter said. "They may have to ultimately give away a Blu-ray drive."

That, of course, is a nod to the fact that Sony has included a Blu-ray player in the PS3 from day one, a move that initially added a significant amount to what the company had to charge for the console, but which over time, is likely to make the PS3 a much more attractive machine.

The most likely scenario, according to analysts, is that the Nintendo Wii will be upgraded to include high-definition capability, but not be immediately replaced with a 'Wii 2.' Nintendo

And instead of releasing a Wii 2, Pachter said, Nintendo may decide to add high-definition capability to the existing console.

Not everyone agrees with Pachter, of course.

In a report forecasting the next four years of the video game industry, IDC analyst Billy Pidgeon predicted that the next console generation could arrive in as little as two years.

"IDC expects next-generation launches to begin in 2010 with successive Microsoft and Nintendo consoles likely," Pidgeon wrote. "Sony is likely to hold off a next-generation launch until 2012 or later."

Of course, it's probably far too early to tell what the next cycle of consoles will feature, and in his report, Pidgeon doesn't address the next round of major improvements.

But one would have to assume that for the companies to put in the time and energy needed to create entirely new consoles, they would have to be built around significant upgrades. And in one sense, that's hard to imagine.

"I really don't see how the boxes need to get any faster," Pachter said. "The boxes are ridiculous right now. No one's going to write code that requires the processing power of these boxes for 7 to 10 years."

For their part, the manufacturers are, not surprisingly, playing coy about their future console plans.

"Is there a next generation?" said Aaron Greenberg, director of product management for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live. "I don't know. It's hard to think about that right now...It feels like we still have a lot of growth between where we are and (the sales) ceiling" of the current generation.

Greenberg said he thinks that Microsoft still has plenty of opportunities to "leverage the platform we have," in particular because the company hopes that the biggest growth for the Xbox will be in its online component.

"Everyone has realized that consoles can continue to sell for quite an extended period of time," he said. "It feels a little premature to think about what (the next) generation might be like. We're always thinking about the future, but we have no plans for years to launch another console."

If you think that Greenberg was playing it too coy, his responses were little different than that of his rivals.

Nintendo of America's vice president of corporate affairs, Denise Kaigler, would barely address the issue when I asked her.

"I'm sure everyone has a different idea on when that should happen," Kaigler said. "We're happy that people are still discovering Wii and having fun with it."

And Sony, as expected, took the position that the PS3 itself is its console of the future.

"We have always said we believe PS3 has a 10-year product life cycle," said Patrick Seybold, the director of corporate communications and social media for Sony Computer Entertainment America. "We've only begun to scratch the surface with PS3...Our investment in future technology is important, and we continue to look at advances in technology to see where we would benchmark our next-generation product. But right now, PS3 is just hitting its stride, and we'll continue to focus on driving the development of games that tap the full resources of PS3."

On June 10, Geek Gestalt hits the highways for Road Trip 2008. I'll start in Orlando, Fla., and visit many of the South's most interesting destinations. Stay tuned, and be sure to keep up, both now and during the trip, with what I'm doing on Twitter.

 

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