Sony only answers one question about the Playstation 4, but it’s a big one

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Sony’s announcement of the Playstation 4, for sale at the end of 2013, turned out to be a bit anticlimactic: The console itself was never revealed, nor was its pricing; examples of its user interface or active gameplay were sparse, and we don’t know what kind of external media, like Blue Ray, it will play.

Sony did show off robust graphic capabilities and speedy new hardware. The Japanese company is counting on the console to help reverse several years of losses.

Most important to Sony’s future are efforts to make social part of the console’s experience, including a share button on the new controller that will allow users to instantaneously share gameplay video with friends, a chat platform where users can watch others play, and Facebook integration. That’s an important advance for Sony, not just to catch up with global expectations for a videogame experience that fits with the rest of users’ online lives, but also because of social gaming’s importance in the Chinese market, where authorities are considering ending a ban on console sales. As we reported recently:

[T]he Chinese market is dominated by online social gaming, and the mediums of choice are PCs and mobile devices. This has paid off handsomely for online gaming companies—especially local ones like Tencent and NetEase, which reap 50% margins on games that cost relatively little to produce. But it has made life hard for those in the business of making console games, which can require investments of up to $20 million.

That price point challenge could still make it hard for Sony to compete, regardless of social integration. But, in another nod to the changing nature of videogames, the company announced it would make its Vita hand-held game console into a kind of second screen, capable of playing all Playstation 4 games. This could expand Sony’s return on investment for expensive-to-produce console games by providing another distribution platform.

Regardless, the new Playstation 4 will have a difficult time pushing against the downtrend in the console market, experienced equally by competitors like Microsoft, with its X-Box, and Nintendo with the Wii. Analysts wonder whether Sony will be able to use the new hardware to transcend the console gaming experience, not just with social and mobile integration, but also the web, streaming television and perhaps even a content and app sales platform like Apple’s iTunes store.

The question, then, is how quickly Sony will be able to change its new videogame console into something that also does everything else—really, into a computer.