PlayStation Delay Dings Gamers

Sony's (SNE) move to delay the European launch of its PlayStation 3 game console and cut shipment expectations is a black eye for the company, but it may not mean a whole lot in the long run.

The electronics giant announced Wednesday that it won't start offering the PlayStation 3 in Europe until next March. Previously, Sony had said it would start selling the console there this November at about the same time as when it plans to ship the device to North America and Japan.

Company officials also warned that Sony expects to ship just 2 million consoles by the end of this year. That's half of what the company had previously forecast.

The delay and the lower shipment numbers will obviously hurt Sony's sales this holiday season, as well as those of publishers who were planning on releasing PlayStation 3 games. And it likely will benefit Microsoft ( MSFT) and Nintendo, both of which are expected to ship significantly more units of their rival consoles this holiday season.

But those near-term effects will likely be limited, analysts say. And by the end of this console cycle five or six years from now, the effects may well be nil, they say.

"When it's all said and done, the PlayStation 3 will be the market leader," says James Lin, a longtime industry analyst and a consultant with Simba Group. "Long term, I see no impact."

Sony blamed the delay and limited shipments on problems it's had in producing mass quantities of the blue laser diode that will be at the heart of the PlayStation 3's Blu-ray DVD player. Blu-ray is a key part of Sony's strategy this console cycle; the company sees the feature as a key element to distinguishing the PlayStation 3 from Microsoft's rival Xbox 360.

Microsoft plans to offer a player that will read HD-DVD discs -- a rival high-definition DVD format to Blu-ray -- this holiday season, but the company does not plan to include the HD-DVD drive as a standard component in the Xbox 360.

The problems are yet more bad PR for Sony. The company already pushed back the launch date of the PlayStation 3 from this past spring to this November.

And there could be more bad news to come. Although the company was quick to emphasize that it still expects to ship 6 million PlayStation 3s by the end of its fiscal year in March, analysts have their doubts.

"I don't think it's a big surprise" that Sony is delaying the European launch and cutting its shipment forecast, says one hedge fund manager who follows the video-game sector, warning that the shipment number "could get lowered again."

That said, Sony's warning about shipments and launch dates have a familiar ring. Just last year, Microsoft had severe supply constraints on its Xbox 360 immediately after launching the console and ended up shipping far fewer of the devices in the first few months than it previously predicted.

Sony itself had trouble meeting demand for the PlayStation 2 when it launched the console back in 2000 due to manufacturing delays.

But Sony's problems with that console launch ultimately meant little. The company ended up selling more than 100 million PlayStation 2s and dominated the market. "People expect there are going to be quirks with the launch of any of these consoles," says Lin.

Those "people" extend to the publishers, analysts say.

Sony's problems should have little to no effect on smaller publishers, such as THQ ( THQI) and Midway Games ( MWY), since they didn't plan on offering any games at the PlayStation 3's launch, noted Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities, in a research report on Wednesday.

Activision ( ATVI) and Electronic Arts ( ERTS), the two biggest independent U.S. publishers, were planning on having a number of launch titles for the PlayStation 3. But the quantities they were likely to sell, even if Sony met the larger shipment number, were so limited that the overall impact to their holiday-quarter sales is likely to be limited.

For EA, it might amount to sales being about 1% lower than expected and for Activision, a little more than that, Pachter said.

"Although we believe that as a group, the seven U.S. publishers face near-term headline risk from the reduced outlook for PS3 shipments, we believe that the actual financial impact will be relatively small," wrote Pachter, whose firm hasn't done recent investment banking business for any of the major publishers.

Assuming that Sony is able to work through its manufacturing problems and get PlayStation 3 production going full bore, the near-term problems likely won't affect overall sales of the console or games for it, analysts say. But some analysts do believe that the manufacturing problems could be a long-term issue.

"If it becomes a recurring theme that they are having trouble supplying blue laser diode, that is a problem," says Michael Goodman, an analyst with Yankee Group.

But other analysts are less concerned about that. Other factors -- such as which games are available for the PlayStation 3 and whether Microsoft is able to broaden the appeal of the Xbox 360 beyond the hard-core gamer contingent to mainstream consumers -- will likely matter more to the PlayStation 3's long-term success than how many consoles Sony ships in the first few months, analysts say.

"I don't think the delay and shipment cut makes that big of a difference," says the hedge fund analyst, who is long Nintendo, but has no position in Sony. "I'm more interested to see what titles they have."

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