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Folly, Thy Name Is Sony (Again)

Leave it to Sony to come up with a way to screw something up in a way that almost no one else has before.&nbsp; Amidst the rush of news flooding out from CES, they announced their plan to sell music from their catalog without DRM -- and it sounds almost as dumb as DRM itself.</p>

Serdar Yegulalp

January 9, 2008

4 Min Read

Leave it to Sony to come up with a way to screw something up in a way that almost no one else has before.  Amidst the rush of news flooding out from CES, they announced their plan to sell music from their catalog without DRM -- and it sounds almost as dumb as DRM itself.

Here's the plan.  Rather than just go somewhere and buy unprotected MP3-format tracks -- the way Amazon.com or eMusic.com does now, or even how Napster plans to offer it -- you have to go to a store and purchase a "Platinum MusicPass", one for each album's worth of music. The card has a scratch-off panel with a special code; you take that code to their online music store, punch that in, and then download.  The cards (which ostensibly go straight into a landfill once they're used up) come with a suggested retail price of $12.99.

I'm hoping this isn't how they always plan to run things.  The whole arrangement is so stilted, so weirdly backwards I can only assume there's more going on here than meets the eye. 

One theory that comes to mind is that Sony thinks this will prevent a massive outflux of people from the stores where their CDs are normally sold -- they're doing this to hook the attention of people who still buy their albums at the stores, and are reluctant to download.  That would make sense if a) this were 2002 and not 2008, and b) it weren't for the fact that CD sales have been tanking across the board for years anyway, and not just those in Sony's catalog.  I still buy physical CDs, but at this point only when a legit download is simply not available.  Is Sony that scared to stick its toe in what are already now very well-traveled waters?

Sony's whole experience with digital music in general has been a mess, a classic example of proprietary protectionist thinking at its worst.  They were jointly responsible for the CD along with Philips, but most everything after that has been one gross miscalculation after another, like the MiniDisc (a format looking for an application) or the SACD.  The latter was especially ill-timed, since everything that was worthwhile about it was completely lost on the iPod generation.  The idea of shelling out for the same albums all over again (for, what, the third time in a row?) and a new playback system and a whole new stereo most likely, all for the sake of something you couldn't even take with you -- well, it sold about as well as you'd expect something that fundamentally dumb to sell.

And then came Sony's experiences with music downloads.  Their Connect music store sold DRM-protected tracks in a proprietary Sony format (ATRAC) that could only be transferred to Sony devices with Sony software.  And yes, it was all Windows-only.  I tried that whole headache for about a year -- yes, I'm ridiculously patient -- before giving up.

In fact, I didn't just give up on Connect; I gave up entirely on the concept of DRMed music, period.  I got an account with eMusic, which had more of what I was looking for (jazz, alt-rock, experimental sounds) anyway.  Anything I can't get from eMusic, I can probably get from Amazon, with zero protection hassles or third-party software needed to make the magic happen.  (The first wave of MusicPass titles is a measly thirty-seven albums; the non-DRMed catalogs in those two services run into the millions of tracks.)

Still.  As dumb and cumbersome as this whole arrangement is, there are some seeds of hope in it.  For one, the tracks are generic MP3; that much is welcome.  And Sony also decided to ditch their proprietary audio formats entirely with the new wave of Walkman players, all of which do MP3 natively and are by all reports really nice pieces of machinery.

Sony's big weakness has never been engineering, but acknowledging that they are not the only technology outfit in the known universe, and acting like it.  That's something that many other technology companies seem to be prone to, come to think of it.

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Serdar Yegulalp

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