Sony unveils PlayStation 4

Console features extensive social networking features

After seven years, Sony is ready to pull the plug on the PlayStation 3, clearing shelves this fall for the PlayStation 4.

As expected, the PS4 features improved graphics performance over its predecessor, but unlike the PS3, which relied on hardware superiority to woo customers, the new system will focus on other elements as well to lure players away from competing consoles from Microsoft and Nintendo — as well as platforms from Apple and other companies. No price has yet been disclosed.

“Today marks a moment of truth and bold step froward for PlayStation as a company,” said Andrew House, president and Group CEO at Sony Computer Entertainment. “The living room is no longer the center of the PlayStation ecosystem. The player is.”

Social media will play a big role in the future of PlayStation. The PS4 will automatically record gameplay from users, letting them post video of triumphant moments and quirky-funny programming bugs to social sites. (Gamers have been doing so for years, but the PS4 is the first console to automatically enable this.)

In a nod to the prevalence of smartphones and tablets, the PS4’s controller will include a touchscreen controller, giving players a new way to control games beyond the traditional thumbsticks. Users will also be able to control the system via a SmartPhone or tablet

Other features include much quicker startup times, the ability to browse live gameplay video of your friend and a partnership with Facebook and UStream, letting people play with their real world friends, as well as people they’ve met in games.

The system will also feature a customization option, along the same lines as Apple’s Genius feature, that will download and suggest games it believes you will enjoy.

“As the system learns your likes and dislikes … you’ll discover content preloaded and ready to go on your conosle,” said Mark Cerny, lead system architect of PS4. “Our long-term vision is to reduce download times to zero.”

“You’ll be able to instantly experience anythng you want,” added Dave Perry, CEO of Sony’s Gaikai division. “Try it for free. Share it if you like. Pay only with the game you fall in love with.”

The PS4 will launch will full support from the industry’s third-party publishers. Ubisoft CEO Yved Guillemot said, “Players are going to be super excited by the PS4” and praised its “quantum leap in power [and] graphics.”

And Activision-Blizzard revealed plans to port PC hit Diablo III to the system (as well as the PS3) — and revealed that Bungie’s much-anticipated Destiny will not only launch on the PS4 (and PS3) , but will include exclusive content for the system.

Sony went out on a limb with the PS3, introducing an entirely new CPU architecture with its Cell processor. While powerful, the system was more difficult for developers to work around, which gave Microsoft an advantage — something Sony acknowledged Wednesday.

“The need to radically customize technology can interfere with the design creation that’s essential to game creation,” said Cerny.

With the PS4, Sony is dropping the Cell and returning to a more standard chipset — similar to a PC. That should help with future game development, but it means PS3 games won’t play on the system. Sony hopes to quell potential user outrage by announcing it is working on allowing players to stream their PS3 (and other PlayStation) games through the PlayStation Network — but it hedged on whether that would be a launch feature.

While the PlayStation 3 has hardly been a failure — research firm IDC estimates life to date worldwide sales currently stand at around 77 million — it failed to live up to the PS2’s numbers.

“This was a very disappointing cycle for them,” said Eric Handler, senior equity analyst of MKM Partners. “They definitely lost market share. … Their whole marketing message at the time was ‘we’re the most powerful machine’ but what the Wii showed us was … people want to buy a console that has the most entertainment value. Machine strength isn’t the Holy Grail. So they’ve got an opportunity here to show they have an interesting, compelling product.”

The PS4 hopes to regain that momentum, but it comes at a time when console sales are slumping, thanks in part to tremendous competition from Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Nintendo has learned this lesson with the launch of the Wii U last year.

The Wii U sold just 46,000 hardware units in January at brick and mortar locations — a shockingly low number for a console that was just released in late November. To put it in perspective, the Wii sold 348,000 units during that system’s comparable period in 2007.