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March 30, 2006

Sony UMD Format Dying?

In a smirky bit of news floating about the web, it seems that the Sony UMD format has failed to gain popularity.  These are the DVD alternatives that are tucked way back in the shelves at stores such as Tower Records.  Smaller than a DVD, they are only playable on Sony PlayStation Portables.  Reports indicate that content providers (movie studios) are disappointed with the format as a sales platform and are considering dropping the format for releases.

Criticisms abound over the lack of compatibility, given that regular DVD releases have full content rather than stripped down offerings to save disc space.  Regular DVDs are playable on inexpensive portable DVD players, laptops and desktop machines, as well as the ubiquitous home player.  For those past discs, the video iPod offers cheaper albeit not necessarily better portable delivery than the proprietary UMD.  Given that UMD discs were priced the same as a regular DVD, the only people who would conceivable want it were people who's only movie watching took place on a PSP.  That's got to be a small segment of the population.

Sony executives could write a book called "Suppose They Created A Format And Nobody Cared."  There was the Beta video format, although that was a marketing failure more than a technical failure.  While VHS had an inferior picture and less recording time at standard play (L-750 at 3 hours v. 120 minutes on a standard VHS tape), VHS was less expensive and good enough for the masses who didn't care about that quality and time issue.  Incremental improvements made Beta irrelevant as a market player.

Then there is the MiniDisc.  It's till out there with players and even recorders, but it is such a niche market that it is almost invisible.  This bit of technology was conceived as an alternative to portable Cds.  Create your own portable music mixes and take them anywhere the ads blared.  The problem was that burnable CDs also existed and portable CD players were inexpensive (relatively).  this format was a non-starter from a commercial standpoint. 

Even the recording side had problems.  While the recorders could be positioned as convenient field recorders for students, musicians, and others, Sony ladled on so much DRM as to make them unattractive.  The only way to take a recording and convert it to another format was to play it back in real time and record from the analog outputs.  There are no file transfers even for unprotected content.

The common denominator with dead formats is their proprietary nature.  The Walkman was a big hit because everybody owned cassettes before the Walkman was created.  It played a format the public had already embraced.  Somewhere in the Sony vaults is probably a plan for the Sony-only cassette.  Luckily something like that never surfaced.

And now there is the next generation high definition DVD from Sony called Blu-Ray with players and media to come out sometime this year.  The timetables seem to be slipping for one reason or another.  The last delay was from failure to finalize copy protection schemes.  At the same time, the competitor HD Disc from Toshiba et al. has had its own delays.  The players were expected to appear in April, but somehow there wouldn't be any HD Disc media to play until May.  Oops.  There's also the question of whether there is enough critical mass of high definition television sets out there to see fast adoption of either format.

Most analysts agree that the market won't support two incompatible formats.  If history is any guide, the format that is cheaper and "good enough" for the average consumer is likely to win out.  So, Sony execs, if you're listening, what's good for the consumer will be good for the company, not the other way around. 

Stories on the UMD assessment are at BetaNews, Endgadget, PSPworld, and Australian IT.  For a sort of contrary view, visit Techdirt.

March 30, 2006 | Permalink


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