Sony and Microsoft are playing different card games


We know a lot more about both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X this week than we did last week. Both Sony and Microsoft have started laying cards on the table; the similarities between their devices -- which both derive from essentially the same AMD-sourced CPU and GPU architecture -- have been known for a long time, but now we're starting to see the all-important differences.
The merits of the big technical differences -- the Series X has a notably punchier GPU, while the PS5 has opted for a significantly faster SSD -- are going to be hotly debated by experts for months, and even more hotly debated by clueless people for literally years. While I don't wish to understate the technical edge Microsoft's hardware has in this match-up -- about 20% more raw graphical power, it seems -- the reality is that we won't know for certain how much of a difference these hardware design decisions have made until we start seeing finished games running on production hardware, which remains months away.
What's arguably just as interesting as the cards we're starting to see laid on the table, then, is which cards are being laid and when. Microsoft and Sony are playing very different games in this regard; the former is being extremely open, to the point of having allowed the media to play with and film a "snap-together" version of its Xbox Series X hardware showing all the internal components, not to mention having shown off final console and controller designs, and a number of core features of the new system software.
Sony, by contrast, is playing a more traditional game. We know more about PS5 after Mark Cerny's presentation this week -- we know a lot more detail about its hardware performance and functionality -- but we have yet to see much of the consumer-relevant stuff about the console. We don't know about its price, of course -- muttered rumours about trouble with keeping down the manufacturing costs aside -- but we also don't know about the system software, the launch exclusives, or crucially, the physical design of the hardware.
Why, then, is Microsoft opting to lay so many of its cards on the table so early in the game? The simple answer is that it's doing so because it can; its previous generation of consoles underperformed badly in the market and, as a result, it doesn't have to worry about stepping on its own long tail. It can whip up early hype for the next generation safe in the knowledge that it wasn't selling enough units of the current generation system to need to worry about deferring customers' purchases -- a rather different calculation to the one faced by Sony, which would still rather like to sell many more million units of the PS4.
Why, then, hasn't Sony brought forward its announcement schedule to rob Microsoft of some of these early-mover advantages? Firstly, as mentioned above, Sony still finds itself somewhat restricted by the ongoing success of PS4 -- it doesn't want to wreck the existing console's last major year in the market by beating the drum too hard, too soon for its successor. Secondly, the reality remains that Sony is the market leader by a huge margin, and while it has thankfully learned not to make silly pronouncements like "the next generation begins when we say it does" this time around, it also likely doesn't want to be seen to cede that leadership position by being overly reactive to what its competitors are doing. It no doubt laid its plans for revealing and promoting the new system many months ago, and doesn't intend to divert from that timeline just because Microsoft is revealing details far earlier than usual.