With Sony and Nintendo's big Tokyo Game Show news come and gone, the internet is again filling up with hand-wringing over whether smartphones are going to take a bite out of the handheld market. In fact, this time around some people are starting to wonder whether the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 are the ringing of the death knell for the handheld market as we know it - with one source...colourfully...predicting the end of the 3DS in 2012.
The iPhone, Industrygamers points out, will soon be at par with the processing power of this generation handheld games; in fact, it should shortly overshadow the 3DS' number crunching abilities. With future iPhone iterations growing more powerful, how long before handheld systems are left lagging behind smartphones in a way similar to the tradition of home consoles lagging behind gaming computers? One way or the other, the new iPhone should be able to push some mighty fancy graphics and gaming environments, and with its massive install base won't it grow increasingly attractive to developers? And, don't forget, other hardware developers are hot on the iPhone's heels with gaming-ready smartphones and tablets of their own.
Sony is saying its new Vita system is not in competition with either the 3DS or smartphones. The 3DS, it argues, is priced to a different range of gamers and smartphones are gadgets first and consoles second - the inverse of the Vita. This should be read as typical corporate spin. Of course the 3DS and the Vita will be in competition; the former's dual-stick add-on, the latter's touch pad, and jockeying for games like Monster Hunter 4 all belie the idea that they're not in the same market. They may be targeting different demographics, or targeting the same audiences differently, but they will compete. Whether or not Sony really believes it is competing with iOS or Android is another question entirely, although Nintendo certainly believes it is going to be fighting a ground war against Apple.
However, as the folks at PC World point out, it strains credulity to think that Sony execs don't have smartphones on their radar. While the Vita (and, by extension, the 3DS) are both promoted as gaming machines - specialized devices for the gamers of the world - smartphones are wooing the casual and part-time gamer crowd. And isn't that the crowd that rained money on Nintendo and bought system after system by snapping up Wii fit and Brain Age, and then did it again for Microsoft with Kinect and games like Kinect Sports? There is certainly a core market of gamers out there, no doubt about that. But will that be enough to keep developers coming back to Sony and Nintendo when they can go to the machines that can do gaming and whatever else the consumers of the world are looking for? It's an easy question to ask, but to argue the point for a moment, when did the PC gaming market, with all those fabulous multi-function machines and their enormous user base, kill off the home console market?
At this point the dire prediction and nervous questions are just conjecture. The 3DS has struggled, which many have pointed to as an ominous portent for the future of handheld gaming consoles, but how much of that is attributable to smartphones, and how much of that is due to over-pricing and not enough quality titles? The 3DS' sales did jump after its price cut; however, analysts expect that, without a significant injection of AAA titles, the 3DS will sell only about 14.5 million units this fiscal year - shy of Nintendo's 16 million target. Not what Nintendo wanted, but hardly a repeat of the Virtual Boy fiasco. While all this has transpired, the buzz over the Vita has only intensified and developers are hopping right on Sony's handheld bandwagon. None of these things is evocative of an industry in imminent danger of collapse. Not all great news, but hardly the Atari apocalypse of the mid 1980s.
So these question marks will continue to circle around the handheld industry until enough dust has settled to see the terrain for what it is, to see if and how much smartphones and tablets are competing with handheld devices. In the interim, it seems that the attention paid to this arena is intensifying, as are the predictions of dire futures for the Vita and 3DS.
What do you think of the speculation going on in the press right now? This isn't the first time we've covered this issue, and our readers have left insightful comments about the issue before. Please do let us know what you think below.