Computer gaming is a growth area worldwide and South Africa is no exception. Gamers in SA can largely be split into two camps: those who use their PCs to play games and those who use gaming consoles, primarily Sony's PlayStation2 (PS2).

In the SA console market, Sony has had things pretty much its own way for the past decade, with the original PlayStation and then PS2. While the PS2 had strong competition in the international market from Microsoft's XBox console, the XBox never made it down to SA, and Sony was able to garner a virtual monopoly here.

Two events are conspiring to make the easy life that Sony has had in SA substantially more difficult. First, Sony has announced that it's delaying the launch of its next generation gaming console - PlayStation PS3 - from November to March next year in all markets outside North America and Japan. Second, Microsoft is getting ready to launch its next generation offering - the XBox 360 - in SA.

Sony's delay was caused by its inability to build enough units to meet the anticipated global demand, a shortfall caused by key decisions made during the design of the new console.

Even though both the Microsoft and Sony consoles use processors designed and built by IBM, Microsoft decided to use a version of an existing chip tweaked for its requirements; while Sony worked with IBM to build a completely new processor, called the Cell.

While Sony may have got its act together to produce enough processors, the second piece of cutting-edge technology - the Blu-Ray drive - has been the main culprit for the delay. Blu-Ray is one of two technologies vying to provide the next generation of DVD drives, the other being HD-DVD.

However, it's proving difficult for Sony to produce enough drives to fill the needs of its PS3 production schedule, and reports are already filtering in that it may even delay its US launch until early next year, causing it to miss the vital Christmas spending season.

However, Microsoft chose to make an earlier launch date by eschewing the bleeding-edge technologies and delivering its XBox with a standard DVD drive. Though that means those looking to play high-definition DVDs on their XBox will be disappointed in the SA market, where HD has yet to make a ripple, let alone a splash. So it's unlikely to be a key buying factor.

What the launch delay of PS3 in SA means is that over this holiday season there will only be one true "next generation" console on sale - the XBox 360, which Microsoft is launching at month-end.

Cindy White, group marketing manager at Microsoft SA, says that local consumers are benefiting from the year's difference from the original Xbox 360 launch, as they'll have access to a much larger catalogue of games than those available then.

The one part of the Xbox experience that SA won't get at its launch is its XBox Live online service. White says that one reason for the delayed rollout of the service - which allows gamers to connect their consoles to a broadband connection and play against others online, as well as download new game trailers, demo versions or updates for their games - was to ensure that the quality of the service matched what was in place internationally.

"With the nature of broadband in SA we're negotiating with the various operators to ensure that when the service does launch early next year, customers aren't disappointed with the experience," says White. "Those who don't want to wait for the SA launch can buy an account in Britain and subject themselves to the difficulties of playing across international links, which is likely to affect the quality of the experience."

With the XBox 360 priced at R2?699 for the entry-level model and R3?699 for the more fully featured version, it's not a toy for the masses.

But for once the gap between the SA and worldwide price isn't as wide as it often is in the technology environment, currently just a few hundred rand. White hopes that will ensure SA consumers buy their consoles here rather than from international markets.

Whether South Africans are willing to desert Sony now that it isn't the only show in town remains to be seen. But given Microsoft's dedication to make its XBox a success, you'd be foolish to think that they aren't expecting a mass conversion.