SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Taking a page from chief rival Microsoft ( MSFT), Sony ( SNE) is developing a sophisticated online service for its upcoming PlayStation 3 game console.

Via the service, PlayStation 3 users will be able to send email and instant messages to each other, download and purchase new game content such as weapons or cars, play multiplayer games and download entire games, said Phil Harrison, head of Sony's global game studios, in a keynote speech at the game developer conference here.

Sony will offer a "basic" version of the service for free, and it will be available in each of the major geographic areas where the PlayStation 3 is being launched, Harrison said.

As Harrsion describes it, the online service resembles Xbox Live, the online system Microsoft introduced with its original Xbox and has carried over to its new Xbox 360 platform.

Microsoft has attempted to use Xbox Live to distinguish itself from Sony; the company says that about half of its Xbox 360 owners thus far are users of Xbox Live.

Sony has had online games for the PlayStation 2 but has not developed a comprehensive online service for that game console.

Like the Xbox 360, the PlayStaton 3 will have built-in network connections including an Ethernet port and a wireless networking card. Sony said last week that it plans to launch the PlayStation 3 worldwide in November.

The ability to connect to the Internet is seen by many analysts as a key feature of the new video-game consoles, allowing game developers to garner incremental revenue from in-game advertising and microtransactions.

Harrison, in his speech, did not address the most pressing question about the PlasyStation 3: its price. Some analysts have worried about what price Sony will be able to charge for the PlayStation 3 because of its expensive components.

In late afternoon trade, shares of Sony were up 17 cents to $46.67; Microsoft shares were trading off 74 cents to $27.