No Sony PR person will admit it, but the PS3 is continuing to face major hurdles (high component costs, emulation troubles, been there-done that games, dwindling exclusive support), and while it’s unclear whether any of these will derail Sony’s dominance, it seems assured that this next-gen race will stay tight for some time. Today, Sony quietly announced that it was launching a $599.99 standalone Blu-Ray. Quietly because the implications of such a release might say something about how Sony feels about the PS3 and its prospects.

This could be silent admittance by CEO Howard Stringer that when it comes to future revenue potential, Blu-Ray matters most to the bottomline, and not the company’s gaming division. Whether the PS3 bellies up or down, Blu-Ray HAS to win. The momentum is certainly there, with Blu-Ray sales outpacing HD-DVD 3:1. This move might be to maintain the momentum and keep Blu-Ray charging ahead. At this rate, it’s hard to see how HD-DVD can win, though I still contend that virtual consoles (like the one on Wii and LIVE) and downloading will eventually make this format war relatively pointless and not much of a revenue stream by the time someone actually wins.

But at what cost is Sony willing to keep it going? One has to believe the stand-alone player will eventually drop below the PS3 price point, and when that happens, the huge “value” argument Sony used to put forth is gone. The PS3 will need to stand on its own two feet. And judging by this annoucement, higher-ups at Sony don’t seem interested in giving the PS3 that much more time.

I’m actually quite surprised the Co. made the standalone price drop so fast; I figured it’d wait at least until one more holiday season to drive PS3 penetration.

But the continuing negativity clouding the new console might be finally breaking even Japan’s iron will. Let’s face the facts, demand is all but gone, and exlusives are disappearing fast (the most recent losses include Sega’s Virtua Fighter 5 and Virtua Tennis). Even remaining exclusives aren’t causing much of a stir (1Up’s recent discussion of DMC4 was hardly one of glowing enthusiasm), and mounting rumors that Kojima’s MGS4 is secretly 360-bound aren’t helping matter.

If anything, this move solidifies that for Sony, PlayStation or no PlayStation, this race is ultimately about besting Toshiba’s HD-DVD. The CELL processor will live on through its Vaio line, and will be profitable. But relying on the PS3 alone to sell Blu-Ray appears now to be too great a risk, and given the current situation, you can’t blame them.