Game of Phones: Why Xperia Play suggests the Vita will be Sony's true PlayStation phone

After playing with the Xperia Play and the PS Vita, the answer is clear: there needs to be one PlayStation phone, and the Vita is it.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read
The Xperia Play can't hope to compete with the Vita. Why should it?
The Xperia Play can't hope to compete with the Vita. Why should it? Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony, you baffle me. I'm sitting down with an Xperia Play, the PlayStationesque Android phone released earlier this year. The one I had been awaiting, for a year, the so-called "PlayStation phone." CNET's already reviewed the Xperia Play, but I was sent the unit to play with a little for myself, at long last. After this year's E3, the Xperia Play sits in my hands like an afterthought. I'm underwhelmed, unexcited, bored. Partially, it's the software: a depressing suite of PlayStation 1 games and choppy frame rate Android titles. Partially, it's the hardware: the Xperia Play has its own buttons, the build quality is impressive, and the device feels good to hold, yet it lacks physical analog sticks.

Yet, what bothers me most of all, strangely, is the branding.

Related links
CNET's Xperia Play review
Hands-on with PS Vita and its games
This wasn't the PSP phone I was looking for

The Xperia Play doesn't say "PlayStation" anywhere on it. A small square with square, triangle, X and circle icons on the lower-left corner of the control pad are the only indication of any PlayStation relationship. "Sony Ericsson" and "Xperia" appear once each, and "Verizon" appears twice.

Even in the software menus or apps I could find, not once did the "PlayStation" word or logo appear. It's a branding white-out.

Does that matter?

Not really. But it's a critical statement. I can't help but be reminded of the MotoRokr E1 phone. The first phone to play well with iTunes, it predated the iPhone as a music phone by two years. However, the device lacked any clear Apple branding or iDevice labeling, or even a look that matched the iPod. The MotoRokr died a quiet death in the shadow of the iPod Nano, a precursor to all that happened after with the iPhone.

I wonder if the same story is inevitably true for the Xperia Play.

PlayStation Vita: A future phone?
The PlayStation Vita: A future phone? Sarah Tew/CNET

While I was at this year's E3, I had many opportunities to play with and hold the PlayStation Vita. It's a far more impressive and future-forward piece of technology. Playing one immediately feels impressive, regardless of your opinions of its games. The Vita has eye-popping graphics. It has sturdy, springy analog sticks. It has its own, different, downloadable game library from the Xperia Play. Even more damningly, the Xperia Play never got a single mention during Sony's E3 press conference.

The Vita will also come in a 3G version, one that's even capable of making voice calls. It won't be a true phone in terms of voice plans--at least, not that we know of--but the Vita comes extremely close to being what will eventually, possibly, be a true PlayStation phone. I still believe that day will come. Here are my reasons.

The Vita will get smaller. Right now, the 5-inch-screened handheld's far too much of a beast to be used as a phone. The PSP started large, then shrunk as small as the maligned PSP Go--a device that shares very similar dimensions and design to the Xperia Play. When the Vita can be shrunk down to a more pocketable form, there's no reason why it couldn't be enabled with a touch-screen phone.

People don't want to carry a separate game handheld anymore. The PlayStation Vita has an aggressive price and amazing specs, but it's got one hurdle to overcome that's awfully high indeed: most people have shifted to iPhones and Android phones for their quick-gaming fixes. This is the same hurdle that the Nintendo 3DS faces, too. Cheap, graphically impressive games are everywhere in the App Store. Yes, the iPhone lacks a control pad, but that doesn't seem to bother millions of iPhone users.

Phone service would further differentiate the Vita from the Nintendo 3DS. While the 3DS' sales have been flagging, Sony shouldn't sleep on Nintendo, ever. Nintendo's Game Boy and DS handhelds have dominated the market for decades. The Vita significantly out-techs the Nintendo 3DS. But, eventually, a lower-priced 3DS with a better battery and a larger library of games will help it regain footing--and, right now, we have no idea how the PS Vita will sell. Sony's expertise in consumer electronics and engineering can create a true PS Vita phone.

The Vita already has 3G. These dreams of a PlayStation Phone would seem sillier had Sony not unveiled that the Vita will have a 3G-enabled option at launch. Developing a partnership with a cellular provider (AT&T) doesn't seem like a casual experiment. The Vita has a touch screen; it also has a microphone and speakers. How far away would a full-fledged phone be?

The back of the Xperia Play: No PlayStation branding anywhere.
The back of the Xperia Play: No PlayStation branding anywhere. Sarah Tew/CNET

Why else would the Xperia Play have had its name stripped of any PlayStation branding? If there was never going to be PlayStation Phone at all coming from SCEA, then why not let the Xperia Play be branded as such? The stripping of all branding indicates to me a concern from Sony's end of brand confusion. Maybe that's just to ensure recognition of the PS Vita over the Xperia Play, but it seems even more like Apple, pre-iPhone.

What do you think? Would you buy a PS Vita phone, or should Sony stick to old-school handheld gaming and leave phones to others? If Sony can apply what's been learned with the Xperia Play and its Android integration and work some of those ideas into a Vita Phone, I'd certainly be interested.

Sound off below.