Naughty Sony Steals Microsoft’s Thunder

Just when you thought that Bill Gates’ fancy new video game system, the
XBox 360, was going to steal every available headline from here to
XBox-mas, Sony moved in with a nasty smoke screen: they hacked their
customers’ computers.

Tuesday came and went with a lukewarm response to what is probably
Microsoft’s biggest product launch in years. The XBox 360 represents
the beginning of the next major battle in the War of the Video Game
Consoles. The two major combatants are Microsoft and Sony, though
Nintendo is a dark horse and shouldn’t be counted out.

Microsoft so wanted to be first to market. They so wanted everybody to be talking about them. They so wanted to be loved.

Instead, as the XBox 360 hit the market, a lot of people were pissed.
There weren’t enough boxes to go around, the available games are just
so-so, and rumours suggest that the XBox system crashes as often as,
well, Windows.

Sony’s still months away from releasing the PlayStation 3, their direct competition to the XBox 360. But that didn’t stop them from raining on Microsoft’s parade with some of the nastiest rear guard action in corporate history: they stole the media’s heart and mind by releasing music CDs stuffed full of good ol’ virus action.

If you believe Sony’s PR line, the “XCP” software that’s bought them so much air time lately was designed to protect music on their CDs from being illegally copied and shared. Modelled on some of the most nefarious hacker viruses in existence and executed by rank amateurs, however, it’s really a hurried and harried attempt to invade their customers’ computers.

XCP lives on what appear to be regular old music CDs. But when these CDs are inserted into a PC, look out.

A nasty little bug called a “rootkit” that pretends to safeguard Sony’s intellectual property sneaks onto the hard drive, hides, opens the back door and invites lawyers and hackers alike in for a visit. (If only they brought along some politicians and used car salesmen, the slimy party would be complete.)

And you thought it was just music on your new CD.

But it’s all a wash. Sony’s real motivation in using XCP was to steal some ink away from Microsoft’s special day (bad news is better than no news, right?). And the media bought it like a new XBox 360.

Pretty much every news outlet has been jabbering on non-stop for weeks about Sony’s latest lame attempt to protect their music CDs from being pirated by the grandparents of the world. Without a doubt, Sony’s efforts could easily be described both as inept and pathetic. What the heck, let’s throw incompetent in there for good measure.

But they worked. Even now, just a few days after the release of the uber-hyped XBox 360, in my news reader I have 37 stories about Sony’s woes to 31 for Microsoft’s alleged triumph. And, I have to admit, the Sony stuff makes much better reading.

I mean, what would you rather learn about, corporate ineptitude or geeks on parade?

Maybe, though, Sony underestimated the total scope of response they received.

Surely they didn’t quite expect to get sued. Four times. On three continents. Or have to replace all the CDs that contained their virus. And offer free music downloads in replacement. They probably didn’t really mean to cook up such a storm of execration that the industry’s copy-protection efforts will be stymied for years to come.

All that was just sort of collateral damage. Oops.

But maybe, just maybe, the rootkit represented Sony’s infantry, the music division, falling on its sword for King Playstation. There were almost 100 million PS2s sold for the XBox’s paltry 20 million. Sony’s gotta maintain that brutal ratio, at all costs. After all, the music business will die a horrible death regardless in years to come — iTunes and its ilk will have their way. Why not sacrifice it now in grand style?

The new gaming console war has barely begun, but already it promises to be dirtier than an American election, with battles being waged on home computers. Hold on to your hats folks, this is gonna be a crazy ride. Oh, and if you happen to be a Windows user, watch your back. Who knows what missile Microsoft will volley back at Sony’s evil little rootkit.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 25, 2005

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