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PlayStation 4: 20 February Must Show Sony's Ability to Reinvent Console Gaming

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Sony is to hold an event in New York on February 20 at which it is expected to announce PlayStation 4, starting the next video gaming console generation in earnest. The machine, according to rumour, is to release this year.

These will be the first official details of Sony's next gaming machine, but we already know a great deal from leaks. It will be "better" than PlayStation 3, of course, but the pertinent question regarding PS4 is about relevance rather than technical advancement.

PlayStation 4 (or whatever it's going to be called: it's internally codenamed ORBIS) will be powerful. But brute force plays a less important role in gaming today, and a focus on computing ability could be seen as diversionary. The modern market is one of vast choice of content, platform and business model, with some of the world's most successful games available for free on the cheapest Android handset.

While PS3 and Xbox 360 were two of a limited array of choices for those wishing to play away from a PC in 2005 and 2006, today anyone can consume games on phones and tablets, and soon we're going to have a range of cheap, TV-side PCs which will bring Steam and its monumental library to the living room. No discs, no boxes, no postage. And, for many, no PlayStation. Steam boss Gabe Newell has already written consoles off.

To make matters even worse for Sony (and Microsoft, obviously), Apple is widely expected to announce and release Apple TV this year, which will bring the App Store and its huge range of games to the home's big screen. This is highly significant, and may well indicate the direction of the games industry as a whole in the mid-term.

Google, too, is about to impact gaming in the living room. We will also see the release of Ouya in 2013, a quirky box which plays Android games and will retail for $99. Whether or not Ouya will have a lasting impression on home gaming itself, its significance will be as a pre-cursor to Google Play - the Android version of the App Store - being accessible through your television.

Both the App Store and Google Play feature large amounts of game content. While many of these titles are clearly pitched at the light user, it's easy to see why Sony and Microsoft are going to find things much tougher with their next launches.

PlayStation 4 is being announced against a backdrop of change. As we move through the console's life-cycle we are likely to see the trivialisation of the generational concept on which it is built. The lines between PC, console, mobile and tablet will eventually be irreversibly erased, and you will soon expect to access your games anywhere and at any time. Services which offer extensive libraries of content will be the new games industry, and Sony must prove that PlayStation Network - its App Store for games - is capable of providing a compelling experience for gaming consumers on every screen they use.

The PS4 reveal in New York cannot just be about putting a disc in a box and making whiz-bangs happen in front of your couch. We need to see a pitch encompassing HD TV, tablets, the cloud, the desktop, mobile phones, Vita, motion control, the next evolution in disc-based content delivery and, finally, a common sense solution to digital distribution for consoles. If we don't, charting a future for PlayStation beyond the next five years is going to be difficult.

February 20 may not provide all the answers - a lot of information is bound to be released during Sony's press conference at LA gaming show E3 in June - but we must see Sony now present an arresting case. The games industry can be like a sugar-fuelled game of musical chairs at a four year-old's birthday party, a brutal amalgam of fun and tears. Sometimes it leaves the nicest, best-meaning child stumbling at the edge of the central cluster, eyes welling, while the ruthless winners triumphantly hyperventilate in their seats.

Sony must show next week that is has the vision to reinvent PlayStation for the modern market, or PlayStation 4 may well find itself the red-faced infant left standing when the music stops.