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Sony Ericsson finally acknowledges PlayStation Phone

by Phil Hornshaw

You might have caught the ad during the Super Bowl, which featured a back-alley doctor sewing thumbs on Google’s (GOOG) round green Android mascot/logo. It was an ad for Sony Ericsson’s (SNE) almost-orphaned Xperia Play, formerly dubbed the PlayStation Phone, which we’ve been waiting for the company to acknowledge for months.

The fact that the phone is announced is only barely news, considering how much we know about it. It has been caught in the wild in China and the U.S. and veritably dissected by different tech blogs. We know tons about the little device, and Sony has been awkwardly closed-lipped about it given how bad it has been about keeping it secret. That Super Bowl commercial even got leaked on YouTube last week, punctuating Sony Ericsson’s massive failure to hold back any detail about the phone, except its release date.

We’ll know that, too, on Feb. 13 when Sony gives an official announcement press conference for the Play.

We know a few other cool things, too, like the fact that the Play will include PlayStation Suite, Sony’s cross-platform PlayStation game platform. PS Suite will allow players to interact with other Android users as well as owners of Sony’s upcoming new portable gaming device, the NGP, for multiplayer games. It’ll also come packed full of old PlayStation games players can download.

As the Xperia Play’s slogan reads, Android is ready to play -- and it sure seems like lots of companies seem to think that’s the case.

The defining characteristic of the Xperia Play is the fact that it includes a slide-down gamepad instead of a keyboard. That’s kind of a big deal in terms of mobile gaming, as a big complaint that a lot of players have is about the weakness of virtual controls. Not only is it very easy to lose track of where you’re pressing on a touchscreen to activate controls, it can be very difficult to execute precise movements in lots of games.

Presumably, the Play is going to solve that problem in a way that Android and even iPhone owners can’t otherwise attain. The phone could open up the smartphone gaming community in a way that hasn’t been done before, making it another very big, very positive step for Android gaming.

The Play suggests to me that the Android might be on the brink of exploding as a gaming platform. It’s about to get a real dedicated gaming phone, as well as the ability to compete against players on different platforms with PlayStation Suite and the power behind phones like LG’s Optimus 2X, and new downloads of games popular to the video game community.

Add to that the fact that Google has finally set up the framework for in-app purchases and the companies that are already very happy to climb onto that bandwagon -- Disney Mobile (DIS) and Zynga among them -- and you could start to see Android competing evenly or even surpassing Apple’s (AAPL) iOS as a gaming platform.

Specifically, the Xperia Play gives Android developers one clear advantage over iPhone devs: they have a machine that’s designed for what they are creating. That gives them more options as far as the kinds of games, and the depth of experience they create within them, than developers that have no choice but to make games with virtual controls.

The Play can potentially have some pretty widely rippling effects on the mobile gaming industry. For one, it signals to people interested in games that Android is the platform that takes them seriously -- and it could have the same effect for developers. You can make a game that makes you cater to the device, or you can use a device that caters to you; that’s a message that’s potentially pretty powerful.

It’ll depend on Sony Ericsson and Google, and whether they realize the potential of the phone they’re selling. But even if the Play doesn’t explode onto the mobile phone market, it at least is a sign of things to come: companies taking mobile gaming seriously, and Android making itself a strong contender among gamers.