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Sony struggles to define PSP


The PlayStation Portable was born a thing of entertainment convergence, a portable gaming device that would let people play games, watch movies, listen to music and surf the net.

But somewhere on the way from announcement to the hands of gamers, the PSP dropped the multimedia ball.

Now, a year and a half and 4.6 million in sales since the PSP’s launch, Sony is striving to revive the non-gaming functions of its svelte player, heeding the cry of PSP owners who say they want more from their portable.

Sony has renewed its push to make music and movies available on its system while adding new elements for the PSP such as an add-on Global Positioning System and camera.

They’re battling not just to swipe some thunder from Apple’s iPod phenomena, but also to stay a step ahead of Microsoft’s Zune — an upcoming portable device that will offer music, video and possibly gaming in a handheld device.

More importantly, Sony hopes to reconnect with customers who want their portables to do it all.

“The PSP consumer has turned out to be a different consumer in many ways than what we have targeted,” said John Koller, senior marketing manager for the PSP.

Fighting to define its mission
Sony has grappled with how to define the PSP since its inception.

When Sony Computer Entertainment America president Kaz Hirai announced the details of the device in early 2005, he emphasized its ability to deliver on all entertainment fronts.

“PSP will evolve and elevate portable entertainment, giving users the freedom to play full 3-D games, watch movies, listen to music and connect wirelessly on their terms, their time and their place,” he said at the time. “More than ever, today's consumer demands access to entertainment outside the home without compromising quality... PSP lets users control their entertainment options, all in one package.”

But shortly after the portables launch, Sony began to de-emphasize the device’s multimedia capabilities, instead pushing it as a gaming device first and foremost.

As Koller said, “We looked at (the PSP)... as a strong portable game system with multifunctional limbs.”

“It’s still a gaming system at its heart,” he said, noting that there are about 120 games available for the PSP and another 100 coming by the end of the year.

Early reviews echoed the emphasis, heralding the device’s gaming capabilities while panning the PSP for its handling of music and video.

To listen to music on the PSP, a user had to convert it and upload it into a specific folder on the proprietary Memory Sticks used by the PSP and other Sony devices. Movies could also be converted and uploaded or purchased on a Universal Media Disc, also proprietary. The UMD format never took off, and earlier this year several film studios announced they would no longer release movies on the smaller discs and Target stopped carrying the format in their stores.

Users’ growing annoyance
The UMD’s failure to launch and Sony’s lack of support for downloading videos and music directly to the portable has become an increasing annoyance to fans of the portable. Sony’s aware of the shortcomings.

“Absolutely — that is something we are addressing and I think it is a valid concern,” Koller said.
Koller says Sony is in the process of trying to determine how best to deliver digital content, like music and movies, directly to the PSP. But Sony — which also operates movie studios and music labels — has always been hyper-diligent about protecting content from piracy, and that issue remains the chief hang-up.

“A big issue for us has been the (Digital Rights Management) and how we can secure that content to the Memory Stick,” Koller said. “The studios and the labels don’t want their content floating around.”

They’re working on a system similar to what Apple has employed for its iTunes service.
Once the issue of DRM is figured out, Sony will have to determine how best to make the content available to PSP owners, be it Sony’s own online service, Connect, or a third-party service.

“That’s still something we are debating here,” he said. “We need to see how the Connect site works out.”


Developing more uses
While digital media is a key focus for Sony Computer Entertainment right now, the company is also working to expand other elements of the portable as well.

In November, the PlayStation 3 will launch with built in PSP support. While Koller wouldn’t discuss specifics, he did say that the PlayStation Portable will be a “remote control device” for the next-gen console. He says more details about that connectivity will be coming out in the coming months, perhaps at the Tokyo Game Show next month.

The PSP will also get some hardware upgrades, including an add-on GPS and camera, both of which arrive this fall.

The GPS would both be used for mapping and gameplay. The camera will include a built-in microphone and be able to take still pictures and video.

Future iterations of the PSP are likely, Koller said, but Sony is counting on the current version to be around for 10 years, much like their consoles. Sony typically releases a new console about every five years, while continuing to support previous models for another five years.

Facing new portable foes
“Competitively the PSP has a lot of different flanks,” Koller said.

While Nintendo remains Sony’s chief competition in the sphere of gaming, Apple’s iPod and Microsoft’s recently announced Zune music and video player also give Sony cause for concern.

“Microsoft said they are targeting Apple and the video and music front,” Koller said. “But I am assuming, we are assuming, that the Zune will eventually have game play. Strategically we are looking at that.

“It’s always a concern if it’s Microsoft.”

Koller said that if the Zune comes out this holiday it could have a “huge impact” on the industry.

Despite some of the bumps in the road and increasing competition, Sony says the PSP has a very bright future.

“The PSP has had the quickest rise in sales of anything we’ve launched,” Koller said. “We are very bullish on the PSP, and very excited.”

Posted by Ed. on August 10.


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