Sony’s PSP Suffers From a Beta Relapse

Sony has a funny way of constantly trying to reinvent the wheel — it’s as if their engineers are in a constant state of denial that the circle is its optimal shape.

A couple of the key technologies that makes up Sony’s phenomenal new mobile game player, the PSP, are proprietary. Oddly, these bits are nothing remarkable. In fact, they already exist in other standard technical forms. But Sony historically seems to like doing things their own way, despite their best interests.

Think back a couple of decades to the Beta tape. Now there was a
serious blunder, a laughable one, really, with the benefit of hindsight.

So laughable, in fact, that one wonders how Sony can repeat it in the PSP with their new Universal Media Disk, or UMD, format.

One of the remarkable features of the PSP is that it can play
feature-length movies at full high definition resolution. Both video
games and movies for the PSP will be delivered on UMD disks.

Great idea, but it’s doomed to failure. Why Sony wouldn’t use a
standard disk format, like Mini DVD, is a mystery, especially when you
consider that Mini DVD holds way more data than the measly 1.8
gigabytes of the UMD format.

Now, if that alone wasn’t daft enough, they also limited their UMD
production capabilities to a single plant in Japan which is under their
control. This has placed significant constraints on how many movie and
game titles they can deliver over time.
It has already caused delays
with products for the PSP, both movies and games.

That means that all game and movie publishing must go through Sony and
their single media production plant. No doubt, if UMD takes off, there
will be more plants built, but this seems unlikely, given that handheld
video players will flourish in coming years and another, more open,
media format will become the standard across all players.

UMD will end up a defunct media format for movies over time, just like
Beta. It will work fine for games, as proprietary media formats are
typical with game systems.

UMD aside, the real question is this: why didn’t Sony just use a
non-disc, flash memory format for games and movies? There are memory
cards like CompactFlash available in data sizes to rival both UMD and
Mini DVD that would offer superior performance in a much smaller size.

The answer to that question leads to the next piece of proprietary technology in the PSP: the much-maligned Memory Stick.

There’s a basic understanding in the industry that Memory Stick is one
of Sony’s worst ideas ever, especially when there are so many other
mainstream, open formats available for them to adopt. They insist on
using it in their digital cameras and get hammered in reviews for that.

But Sony pushes on with their lunacy, like some sick, demented old man who insists on using a twig to brush his teeth.

The problems with Memory Stick are pretty clear. For one, because Sony
is the only large producer of Memory Stick media, is remains more
expensive than other formats. I have a one gigabyte CompactFlash card
in my camera; I could never have afforded
the equivalent Memory Stick
card for a Sony camera.

The other major problem with Memory Stick media is its limited usefulness. It’ll work in Sony products and that’s it.

Once, a long time ago, I owned a Sony camera. When I moved to the Canon
platform I realized that my investment in Memory Stick media was out
the window. I am now sworn off of any device that uses physical
proprietary media.

Sony’s insistence on using Memory Stick as their default flash memory
technology probably contributed to their decision to invent UMD.

They’ve had trouble engineering Memory Stick to hold the large amounts
of data required by a gaming system like the PSP. So, to avoid
suffering the shame of adopting another flash memory format, like
CompactFlash, Sony decided to invent yet another proprietary media
format for the PSP.

I don’t want to take anything away from the fact that the Sony PSP is a
phenomenal device. It quite simply blows my mind that such a
substantive gaming experience can be squeezed into such a tiny little
package.

It’s important to note, however, that the PSP is only as great as its
gaming capabilities.

For the delivery of movies, the UMD format is a
glaring botch job, reminiscent of the infamous Beta tape, and Sony’s
continued insistence on using Memory Stick as the flash memory format
in its devices is nothing short of laughable. In short, as a movie,
photo or music device, the PSP bites — big time.

Originally published in the Yukon News on April 15, 2005.