The Zeebo console for emerging markets isn't strictly a handheld device, although if you look inside the box (see the early prototype photo right), it effectively consists of the chipset from the HTC Dream/G1 Android phone, plus some extra I/O to deal with TV screens, controllers and the like.
It is a significant device, however, in terms of the way basic mobile phone technology, and more particularly the distribution of digital content over 3G connections, is seeping out around the world in strange and wonderful ways.
But first, a quick recap. Set up as a joint venture by US IP company Qualcomm and Brazilian consumer electronics company Tectoy, the plan behind Zeebo (the company and console share the name) is to launch a sub-$200 gaming, entertainment and educational console for the billion-strong middle classes in emerging economies such as Brazil and India.
Launching in Brazil in June, the console should roll out into Mexico by the end of 2009, and India and other parts of Latin America in 2010. Eastern Europe, parts of Africa, Asia and, of course, China are also on the list, although actual deals will depend on hooking up solid distribution partners in each country.
One of the key players behind the company is the director of Qualcomm's gaming group Mike Yuen.
"The key thing is we're using off-the-shelf components," he explains. "We're leveraging standard mobile phone technology and Qualcomm's BREW software development environment, so we avoid the billions of dollars it takes to enter the console business, as well as having an ecosystem most publishers and many developers are familiar with. They submit their games to Qualcomm as they would any other BREW application, and they get paid in the same way."
Put this way, it's a neat opportunity for publishers, and many mobile and console companies have already signed up including EA, Capcom, THQ, Activision, PopCap, Gameloft and Digital Chocolate.
The thinking behind Zeebo is more honed, though. For one thing, the console is priced much lower than the likes of PlayStation. In Brazil, a PlayStation 2 costs $250 and that's before you get it chipped.
And that's another major issue in such territories. Legitimate games are so expensive (up to $100 a pop), that they're beyond the reach of all but the rich, hence pirated copies that sell for around $10 make up the vast majority of sales.
But as John Rizzo, Zeebo's CEO, points out digital distribution solves that problem in a virtuous way. "All of our content is delivered electronically and wirelessly, so we can eliminate piracy, which means publishers can make a profit in their local markets," he says. "This provides them with the motivation to create content that's designed to meet the local language and cultural requirements."
Around 80 independent developers are already approved on Zeebo and the company hopes they will come up with the sort of localised, cultural content that US or European corporations wouldn't understand.
In addition, it's expected in Brazil that Zeebo games will be available for around $12, while general economies of scale mean the price of the console - which ships with five embedded games - should quickly be driven down to around $179 and hopefully $150 by the end of 2009.
"The fact is the consumers in these countries who want and can afford an Xbox, PlayStation or Wii probably already have one," says Rizzo. "For most people though, Zeebo is the first 3D games console they will be able to purchase."
And as Yuen points out, Zeebo doesn't just have to be a games console. "Latin America has a strong gaming culture but in India and China I think we'll have a more educational focus so it will be a broader entertainment device with lifestyle-oriented features," he says.