cat /dev/DiBona/brain: Sony Just Doesn't Get It

by Chris DiBona

Competing with the iPod is a very difficult thing to do. You need to get a lot right to be even in the same league. In typical Sony fashion, they have spent a lot of marketing, design and PR dollars creating and promoting their "iPod killing" Network Walkman. This is a device roughly the same size as an iPod--or smaller, depending on if you believe the PR, but not smaller than an iPod mini...but whatever.

Before I rant a bit, let's compare their features:

  • Hard Drive Size: Sony appears to be offering a 20 gigabyte version or a 40 gigabyte version for its Network Walkman, depending on which report you believe. Either way, the iPod has a range of capacities as well.

  • Price: Sony's offering costs a bit less when comparing comparable capacities with the iPod. Yay Sony!

  • Support Software: Sony Connect vs. iTunes. iTunes is good, Sony Connect is not. But hey, you might like Sony Connect, so that's up to you. I prefer to encode my CDs myself at the insane bit rates I prefer.

  • Formats Supported: Sony likes you to use Atrac, Apple likes AAC, so who cares, right? You simply can play MP3s on them and forget their DRMed proprietary formats. Right? Right? Well, on the iPod you can. And on every portable player made in the last five years, you can. I don't have enough room or time to list every player that does, really.

    But Sony doesn't play MP3. It seems it "supports" MP3 through conversion, and we all love trans-coded music, right? But nope, no playback of MP3.

Yes, seriously. Really, stop laughing. Transcoding is an abomination. Running your music through two lossy encoding steps is plain bad for the music if your standards are anywhere above 1950's AM radio technology. It would be like using a Xerox machine to do micrography, as in that old AIR article, which I couldn't find on-line.

So, in short, Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

Take a perfectly interesting product and make it sucky in one fell swoop. I mean, I know that Sony has their stuff together much of the time--don't ask me about VAIO build quality, please, I've repressed that. The PS/2 is a fine product, and the Sony classical label does some remarkable recordings, but these landfill worthy players should be abandoned as some Sony executive's bad-trip drug dream. Better yet, the firmware should be upgraded to play the freaking MP3 standard that litters most people's music collections.

This isn't the first time Sony has done this. About four years ago, it had a pretty drop-dead sexy little MP3, um, Atrac player that looked like a stuppy pen, and I would have bought one in a second had it played MP3s.

I know what you are thinking: "What about Ogg? MP3 is stinky patent encumbered crapola." All I can say is iRiver seems to get it, and its player looks very nice; I want one and all that (I'd love to review one, fellas). But you have to support MP3 if you want a player to be a commercial success. Sony obviously is the kind of company that, even if Ogg were the dominant encoding system the way MP3 is today, would not support it in favor of Atrac-on-memory-stick.

Also, can I say that Atrac stinks? Good. Atrac stinks. I have an old minidisk player that is great for recording lectures and interviews and such, but past that? Crap.

Thanks for listening to my rant.

Chris DiBona is the Co-Founder of Damage Studios, a San Francisco-based game company working on the next generation massively multiplayer on-line game, Rekonstruction. He was formerly an editor for and was the co-editor of Open Sources: Voices From the Open Source Software Revolution.

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