Pride, Prejudice and the PlayStation Portable

ves expect the PlayStation Portable to be the Walkman of the 21st Century. Maybe not. Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin warns that any comparisons with a more-innocent, analog era may be strained by the company's current content intiatives.

There may no snow on the ground, but video gamers are already aglow about the 2004 holiday season. Thats when Sony will make its foray into handheld gaming. Looking over the preliminary specifications for Sonys upcoming ubermedia PlayStation Portable (PSP) is enough to stir the techno-lust in even the most cynical industry-watcher. However, one need not be the most cynical observer to wonder if Sony will hobble the forthcoming products broad standards support in some bizarre proprietary way.

Why would Sony do that? Well, why would it put out a Clie with a Compact Flash slot that takes only its own Wi-Fi card? Why would it insist on transcoding every music format to its own ATRAC standard in its flash memory players, slowing transfer speeds? Why would it neglect a method for its NetMD recorders to upload interviews back to the PC? The era of digital content demands compromises, but Sony keeps making the wrong ones. As the company struggles to create integration among its products and protect the rights of copyright holders, it is introducing too many "gotchas" into its products.

The still-unseen PSP may lack the raw polygon-crunching power of the PlayStation 2, but it will in some ways be a more complex device from an I/O perspective with a Memory Stick slot, USB 2.0, Wi-Fi, and even IrDA (take that, Bluetooth). Theres also the curious new plastic-coated 1.8GB optical media disc dubbed UMD, a new storage format that the world needs like another dating TV show. (For more information see Sony Publishes PSP Handhelds System Specs at

All of these pathways could turn the PSP into an exciting and versatile media playback device. Or not, depending on whether Sony continues to be as heavy-handed about digital rights management as its been with, say, its NetMD players.

Theres at least some reason to hold out hope that the PSP wont be subject to some of the annoying limits that have plagued its electronic cousins. Unlike Sonys handhelds and portable music players, which come from its Electronics division, the PSP will come from Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE), the same folks who brought you the PlayStation 2. Not only are SCEs three major geographic divisions a cash cow (which could buy it more latitude), but they have a fundamentally different business model than the mainstay electronics group. Like most videogame console groups, SCE makes most of its money from game licenses, so it might be less concerned about how the PSP handles other forms of media.

However, that reliance on video games as packaged media and an intent to at least try the UMD format for movie distribution has Sony bringing out the big cryptological guns. Sony describes UMD as a "secure ROM cartridge" using AES encryption to protect content. So we may not be able to purchase blank UMD discs for the foreseeable future.

That doesnt sound very convenient. The fabled Walkman would have had a much harder time if owners hadnt been able to make their own mixes; and the MiniDisc format would have been useless after its attempt to become the next CD failed had it not been available as blank, recordable media. Now, history may be repeating itself as Sony positions UMD as the portable successor to DVD. The Discman took off years before it was practical to burn your own CDs, but there was a rich variety of packaged media were unlikely to see in UMD.

At the same time, Memory Stick might provide a back door. Gigabyte Memory Stick Pro sticks have recently come to market and are expensive. By the holiday season of 2004, though, such capacity could be more attainable. Perhaps Sony will allow the PSP to play native MP3 files or MPEG4 video, but at best transferring such media will probably involve some clunky intermediary application like RealPlayer or proprietary Sony software—just like the Walkman, right?

Sony talks a lot about how the PSP is a convergence device, but the company invoked much of the same rhetoric about the PlayStation 2 and, come to think of it, just about anything its come out with recently that has a screen attached to it. Ultimately, the PlayStation 2 turned out to be a great game machine and the PSP probably will as well. That would make it the Game Boy of the 21st Century, but not the Walkman.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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