The reviews are out, and the PlayStation 4 is, in fact, much of what we'd hoped it'd be: a fabulous gaming machine with a social personality. It has lived up to it's next-gen label, thus far. But there's another aspect to the PS4 that may prove to be equally as important to the console's long-term success against its main rival from Microsoft. I'm talking about video and music services.
Yes, the PS4 was very much designed as a gaming machine first, a point made clear by Shuhei Yoshida and reiterated to us when we recently spoke with Michael Aragon, Sony's VP and GM of Global Digital Video and Music services. That said, Aragon's job is to make Sony's gaming rig a video and music streamer, too, and he thinks that a key to giving Video Unlimited an advantage over its competitors is speed. Folks can get new releases (both movies and TV shows) earlier from VU than from, say Netflix or Amazon. Additionally, Aragon's fanatical about making his offering the fastest streaming experience possible. "I want it to be instantaneous," he said when asked about buffering times, and with that as the goal, he's constantly searching for ways to shave another second or two off of the load time -- including working with studios to get the rights to tweak the movie feeds for optimal streaming speed.
Another asset is Sony's forthcoming original video content that'll be produced by Sony Pictures Entertainment for PS4. Aragon couldn't give us any specifics about the shows in production, but he did explain how his team is approaching programming for the console. "We're going after 18-35 year old males hard core," he said. No surprise there, but how he finds out what those gaming dudes want to watch is more involved than you might think.
Jillian Michaels ab workout was the third most played disc on PS3
"I've built out my analytics team," says Aragon, "so what we do, especially on the PS4, is we pull a whole bunch of data and we run regressions on things to find out what characteristics and features resonate." It's not all based upon numbers, of course, as Aragon's relationship with the folks from Sony Pictures has grown into one of mutual trust and respect the point that show development is a collaborative effort. According to him, "we think about what things worked in the past, because we have five to six years of PS3 data to draw from, then we work with the studios to combine the math and the art."
And, what works can be surprising. Aragon's team also gets data from every Blu-ray that's been played in a PlayStation, and they found that Jillian Michaels ab workout was the third most played disc on PS3. Based on that information, a fitness section was created and displayed prominently on the PS3's video storefront. Proof that Sony is paying very close attention to what users watch on its consoles, and is hell-bent on giving its users what they want... to a point.
We asked Aragon if the originals, when they arrive, will be available on Video Unlimited or will be offered as a part of a separate service, and whether they'll be free to PS Plus members. Unfortunately, he couldn't say, as his team is still wrestling with the economics of this new content. Neither would he commit to providing every episode of original shows at once -- to best serve the binge-watching crowd. Instead, Aragon said "we'd probably do some sort of hybrid, so have some binge viewing, but portion it out some way to build momentum." Naturally, these plans are still being ironed out, so further details were nowhere to be found.
Video is, of course, only one half of Aragon's responsibility, the other half is music. We all know that the PS4 will, eventually, get MP3 and CD playback, and when asked why that function wasn't on the console at launch, Aragon echoed Yoshida's earlier statements about Sony prioritizing gaming features over all else. As for music options outside of Music Unlimited? Aragon's included in the decision making process about allowing competing services like Spotify and Rhapsody on PS4, but it's not solely his call -- the PlayStation device and business development teams have a say in the matter as well.
We get the impression that the business end, unsurprisingly, is steering the ship on the issue and that team favors music services proffered by Sony's retail partners over other Music Unlimited competitors. "Walmart and Amazon are key retail partners that are important to us," according to Aragon, "so you have to balance that with the fact that they have competitor services." As for other services, well, they would have to pony up a price high enough to outweigh the resulting cannibalization of Music Unlimited's user base in the eyes of business development. In other words, retailers with competing services seem to have a distinct edge over their service-exclusive counterparts at Sony's PS4 negotiating table. Aragon wouldn't foreclose the possibility of Spotify showing up on the console, of course, but it's safe to say we don't expect to see such an app any time soon.
What we can expect is for Music Unlimited to worm its way into more and more parts of the PS4 experience, gaming or otherwise, in the future. "My focus is on new business models and how to get our 22 million-song catalog to our customers in new ways," according to Aragon. "I want to be different from what's already out there and leverage our strengths." Whether Music Unlimited proves to be a strength or a pain point on the PS4 remains to be seen.