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PSN outage: Playstation at war?

As I write this, Sony’s Playstation Network is in about the 18th hour or so of an unplanned, apparently worldwide outage that is requiring, according to a memo supposedly being distributed to Sony customer service folks, “Emergency Maintenance”. The outage, we are told, may last another couple of days. The timing of this outage is embarrassing for Sony, happening on a day when a number of new PS3 game titles are being released, many with an emphasis on on-line play.

The cause of the outage, at the moment, is currently pure speculation, but there is a whole lot of speculating going on. A group of “hackers” who attacked Sony’s servers recently, has claimed innocence, and there is little reason to doubt them. Others have speculated that the outage may be related to a recent firmware update that Sony pushed to PS3 consoles recently.

Whatever the reason, as Sony scrambles to get their network running again, I can’t help but wonder about something that has been bothering me for the last few months. In this case the phrase “The Last Few Months” refers to the period of time since I purchased a Playstation 3.

I bought the PS3 primarily as a Blu-Ray player and media streamer. I had a nice setup in my media room which allowed me to watch movies and programming stored on my computer’s hard disk (Yes, I own the discs, but I hate tracking down thousands of little pieces of plastic when I can just select what I want to watch from a menu). I had also heard that the PS3 was friendly with Linux, which is what I use. Games were a purely secondary reason for buying the thing. The PS3 would be a single box and a single remote replacing two others, plus there were games, which I thought might be fun.

Almost at once, I discovered that I did really like playing video games, which was good, because the media streaming part was woefully lacking. With some rather ingenious third-party software, I was able to get some low-to-medium definition streaming, but no better than DVD quality. Also, it turned out that the PS3 does not support one of the most useful file containers, and the one that I use almost exclusively. I was a little puzzled by this, so I took to Google to find out why this supposedly amazing and wonderful piece of hardware didn’t support an equally wonderful file format.

Apparently, the answer had to do with the fact that Matroska (.MKV) files are one of the more commonly used formats for trading pirated movies.

Really??? Seriously??? We’re going to sacrifice a highly capable format altogether because people sometimes use it to pirate things? I have no hard evidence of this, but I would suspect that most pirated music is distributed in MP3 format, and I don’t hear anyone sounding the alarm that MP3 is an inherently evil format used by thieves, liars and cheats.

I didn’t realize it, but I had just started to scratch the surface of Sony’s business philosophy.

In the 5 months or so since I purchased my console, I have received four firmware updates. They were 3.55, 3.56, 3.60 and 3.61. There have been a couple little things added each time, but by and large these updates were not created and pushed out to enhance my (the Paying Customer’s) user experience, but rather to ensure that I could not run alternative software or pirated games on my console.

Okay, okay, before you all start screaming and getting all whipped up, I am not making a statement in support of stealing games. Personally, I’m an open-source kinda guy, so I do think that getting possessive and obsessive about making sure that every single installed copy of a program has an accompanying entry in Sony’s bank account is a little misguided. That is, of course another story.

Sony has also taken away features that it once used to sell the PS3. Once upon a time, there was a feature called “Other OS”, which allowed a PS3 owner to install another operating system, IE: Linux, BSD, etc. At some point, Sony figured out that there might be a way for someone to actually take control of the hardware that they paid for, so a firmware update came out removing that feature.

What Sony may not have realized, however, is that there is a particular breed of geek that absolutely LOVES installing Linux on things, especially things that weren’t built with the idea that they would be running Linux (Motorola Droid, Barnes & Noble Nook Color, etc). These guys were, to say the least, pissed. On the other hand, the PS3 immediately became a target for geek wrath, and the race was on to reinstall some open-source goodness.

Sony didn’t like this one bit, of course, and lawsuits flew, most recently and famously at the kid who created the original Jailbreak exploit for the iPhone. “Geohot” was sued by Sony for “unlocking” the PS3. That case recently settled, with a gag order that, as far as I can tell, forbids the kid from ever uttering the words “Sony”, “Playstation”, or “PS3”, and he has to deny any knowledge of ever having heard of gaming, electronics, electrons, and maybe even electricity. I’m sure Sony is getting a nice golf clap from Steve Jobs.

Okay, seriously, to get to the issue as I see it:

My wife and I both run businesses. Hers is brick-and-mortar, and mine is on-line. The way we choose to run them, though, is actually very similar. The way I see it, when you’re running a business that deals with customers, you can base your business around the customers that you want, or you can base your business around the customers you don’t want. In my business, for example, I will replace DVDs without first receiving the damaged one, I will take people at their word that an untraceable shipment out of the country never arrived, and I will generally assume that people are acting in an honest and forthright manner. Do I get taken from time to time? Maybe, but that’s something that I just figure is a cost of doing business. What I do know is that my good customers are not harassed, or made to put up with lengthy and self-righteous explanations for why I won’t accept checks or ship to Canada. Like I said, I just accept that there will be some slight losses from time to time, but they are more than made up for by repeat business from my honest clientele.

Sony, on the other hand, seems to take the position that a few people who -might- want to play some pirated games are going to affect the entire user experience for the vast (innocent) majority of their customers, who are not attempting to steal anything, and in many cases, just want to feel like they actually own this thing they paid hundreds of dollars for. This is what I mean by basing your business around the customers you don’t want.

There are currently rumors floating around that the current outage is in fact an attack, and maybe so. If not, perhaps it does have something to do with a new firmware update. In either case, I would suggest that Sony could solve this kind of problem by simply loosening up on the console a little bit. I understand, piracy is a big fear, but should that fear really determine the user experience for everyone?

Fact is, not every single installation of a pirated game represents lost revenue for the publisher. When I was a kid, I pirated all kinds of stuff. The reason was simple: I could afford one, maybe two games a year, and that really was all I was good for. Stopping there would not have preserved revenue for anyone, I just would have found something else to do. I would actually go so far as to suggest that being able to access games that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to is what kept me active as a potential future customer. Now that I am, in fact, all grown up, I can honestly say that I have paid for more PS3 games than I can currently play, and that every single game that has ever graced my PS3 has been legit, and purchased by yours truly.

Okay, once again, I am NOT advocating theft or piracy! I am simply saying that piracy is a fact of life in any software industry. Trying to stop it by taking draconian hardware and software measures to ensure that a customer’s use of the stuff they have paid for is narrowly limited is not the best way to go. For an example outside the electronics domain, I’d suggest looking to, of all things, organic farming. In that world, forgoing the use of pesticides does result in some crop loss. The solution: plant more than you need and think of it as a cost of doing business. The bugs get what they need, and the farmers get what they need, everyone’s happy.

Maybe Sony could let the Linux guys put their beloved OS back on the PS3, open things up a little bit (Like Microsoft has done with the Kinect), take a deep breath, accept that 100% of installations might not be legitimate, and rest assured that the a lot of the kids who are playing bootleg copies of “Supergame” now will be lining up to pre-order and pay full price for “Supergame IV” in a few years. These are also probably the kids that will see the value in spending even more hundreds of dollars on the next-generation console when it comes out. Seems almost like incubating your future customers to me, but what do I know? After all, I give my work away!

I have to say, I have greatly enjoyed owning my PS3, and I am not going to be giving it away. I am disappointed, however, that Sony seems to be taking the position of a jealous content-creation company, and trying so hard to keep a tight grip on the operation of their product. When I was shopping for consoles, I quickly saw that the choice was between Microsoft and Sony, and I figured Sony must be the relative “Good Guy” of the console world. If they are, it is surely simply by default, just not being quite as bad as the competition.

I certainly do not feel valued by Sony as a customer. Rather, I feel blatantly mistrusted, and it seems almost as if my PS3 is not the entertainment device I was seeking, but rather it is a piracy prevention device which I have paid good money to simply lease from Sony. Like many other areas on the digital landscape, the future of gaming is going to have to figure our how to include some sort of openness if it is going to thrive and have a bright future. Whatever it is that’s happening with the Playstation Network, I sincerely hope that Sony takes it as a cue to ask itself what they might have done to prevent this, and how can they prevent it in the future.

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