According to sales estimates released by the International Data Corporation earlier this week, the PlayStation 3 is now the second-best selling console of the generation. The research firm predicts that Sony surpassed the Xbox 360 in global shipment figures this December, putting the platform ahead of Microsoft’s machine for the first time since its release. But while the report has provided the fuel for a range of heated forum debates, does it really matter which system finishes on top?

If previous generations have taught us anything, it’s that the games industry is difficult to forecast. After the limitless success of the PlayStation 2, pundits predicted that the PS3 would be a certain hit. But the platform’s initial struggles are well documented, with the console failing to adjust to the surprise success of the Nintendo Wii and the growth of the Xbox brand globally. A similarly unexpected outcome could occur next generation, with the current standings providing very little warning of what’s to come.

As such, it’s difficult to determine the exact advantages of one machine edging out the other. Victory would certainly give executives and console warriors something to shout about, but we’re not convinced that it means much in the grand scheme things. It’s too late for third-party publishers to suddenly pick sides, with rising development costs ensuring that both systems will continue to enjoy the majority of software releases.

We suppose that there’s an argument to be made in favour of the PS3’s achievements should it eventually topple its nearest competitor. Launching a year later than the Xbox 360 – closer to 16 months in Europe – at a significantly higher price point looked like it would effectively kill the console at the start of the generation, but Sony deserves recognition for turning things around. However, cynics could quite easily point to the system’s squandered market share as a convincing counter point.

If nothing else, we suspect that both platform holders will be looking to leverage their existing install bases in order to ensure the success of their new machines out of the gate. Perhaps more than ever, brand allegiance is becoming an increasingly important factor, with the advent of digital downloads and in-game rewards locking players into specific ecosystems. But while network preferences will no doubt have an impact on future purchasing decisions, we’re not convinced that those ties are unbreakable.

And that brings us full circle, back to where we started: does it matter if the PS3 finishes the generation ahead of the Xbox 360? For corporate sound bites and message board conversations, we suppose it’s a big deal – but behind the scenes, we doubt former SCE president Kaz Hirai will be knocking back his finest whiskey. The market is so finely balanced, that any minor victory is unlikely to mean much in the long term. No, the real battle is still yet to start.

Do you think that it matters if the PS3 overtakes the Xbox 360 in global sales? What impact do you think that the current platform standings will have on the next generation? Let us know in the comments section below.