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Switched On: Stuck in the Middle with UMD

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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

After more than a year of fever-pitch hype, the PlayStation Portable didn't need a dramatic corporate shakeup to add more media attention to its launch, but that's what it got. Sony's incoming CEO has been vocal about the company's need to integrate its content and technology assets, and can't help but make progress in a company that has sometimes seemed on the verge of suing itself.

To that end, Sony deserves credit for the flexibility it's offered with its relatively expensive and unpopular Memory Stick Pro Duo. Overall, the PSP has gotten a bad rap for its "convergence" features but it's unfair to paint it with a single brush for all content. While, contrary to the company's positioning, the handheld is no competitor to the incumbent iPod, it does benefit from Sony's recent détente with the MP3 format. Furthermore, the PSP – aided by its dramatic, high-contrast screen - is the best portable photo viewing device targeted to consumers; PictBridge capability would have been a nice bonus. Its main drawback is that one has to quit a game in progress in order to view photos. This modality should be familiar for old Mac hands who remember those innocent, carefree days of computing before MultiFinder.

The PSP accommodates video, on the other hand, via two kinds of media � the awkwardly named Memory Stick Pro Duo for transferred videos and the ironically named �Universal� Media Disc (UMD) for packaged media. American PSP owners currently have to cross-reference the Dungeon Master�s Guide and Monster Manual to get video onto their power-hungry portable, but the process should be eased by better software. (This disqualifies SonicStage, which hardly qualifies as �better� and Connect, which hardly qualifies as �software�.)


Rather, it�s UMD that comes off as the product�s weakest architectural link. Sony was certainly challenged to offer a way to deliver high capacity to its freshman portable gaming device, but the 1.8GB UMD must take at least some of the blame for the relatively slow load times for PSP. Optical discs also shorten battery life. In contrast to the homebrew potential on Memory Stick, there is no way for consumers to burn UMDs. In contrast, Sony could have opted for a 1.5GB 3-inch mini-DVD like those used in the GameCube and its own Handycam camcorders. The 3-inch DVD is a bit larger than a UMD with shell but significantly thinner. Being able to take a disc straight from a Sony camcorder or DVD recorder and play it in a PSP would be a powerful and practical convergence demonstration.

From a technical standpoint, UMD addresses the content distribution dilemma that has plagued other portable video players. The momentum of portable DVD players demonstrates that there�s at least some market for disc-based portable video, but Sony�s approach won�t be sufficient to jumpstart the market. The bold Sony-of-Tomorrow, though, might dispense with UMD altogether and use that precious real estate for a hard drive. Howard Stringer has already publicly mused that the PSP�s next iteration may include such a component. That would make it more competitive with the iPod and compelling competition for portable media players from Microsoft partners Samsung, Creative and iRiver, as well as Thomson and Archos.

Distributing PSP games this way would entail all sorts of challenges from digital rights management to channel conflict, but it would also usher in a new era of convenience. Gamers could keep three or more games on tap without having to carry an Altoids tin full of UMDs around (particularly beneficial since the PSP offers no integrated Altoids storage). It would also open the door for distribution from smaller, innovative developers hamstrung without the support of a major publisher as well as a host of video services offering everything from news clips to independent films heading toward portable media players. That�s the definition of expanding the market. Unfortunately, the only �console� developer to propose distribution primarily through broadband is Infinium Labs, developers of phantasmal Phantom game console and, per its Web site, the �coming 2005� Phantom Game Service.

The PSP was developed at a Sony at war with itself, but its future lies in the promise of the company bringing peace between its contentious camps. For all of the PSP�s multimedia warts, it�s hard to imagine future consoles ignoring other forms of digital media. Sony has made some positive steps in accommodating them, but needs to hit its stride to exploit them.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
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