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Japantown

Andrew Vestal

Sony doesn’t just sell consumer electronics. Sony sells a lifestyle: sleek, sexy, slightly upscale. The simple curves and flat surfaces of the trademark “Sony style” unite Sony’s various hardware divisions with a single look. Recently, Sony President Ken Kutaragi trumpeted the merits of the PSP’s design, claiming he believed Sony has “made the most beautiful thing in the world.” That seems a bit much—but there’s no denying that the PSP’s smooth exterior is the ultimate expression of Sony’s design aesthetic.

The interior of the PSP, however, represents a clean break with years of Sony’s technological initiatives. Until recently, Sony’s music and media divisions held the most sway within the company. Sony’s electronics were built to enforce strong content control, and Sony’s executives, controlling everything, felt content. Yet consumers balked at these draconian measures, and Sony’s MP3-incompatible music devices floundered in the marketplace for years.

The PSP, in sharp contrast, has been designed to support open hardware and software standards. The PSP connects to a PC or Macintosh with a standard USB cable, not a proprietary Sony one. Save data and media are saved to a Memory Stick Duo—a Sony format, true, but one used in multiple devices and produced by a wide number of third-party manufacturers. Sony executives no doubt hope users watch movies on Sony’s UMD discs and listen to music in Sony’s ATRAC format. But with the PSP, users have a choice: They can convert their own movies and music to MPEG-4 and MP3, then play them back freely from a memory stick. The PSP also displays digital JPEG photos.

By supporting these open industry standards, Sony has (perhaps inadvertently) created a new console space: legal, enthusiast-created middleware. Though the PSP has been out for only two months, a large number of helpful tools have already been created. A Macintosh utility called iPSP fully integrates the PSP with iPhoto and iTunes. A similar Windows utility automatically resizes JPEG directories and archives to PSP resolution, turning the PSP into the perfect device for viewing photo albums or gray-market manga scans on the go. And with a bit of tweaking, free MPEG-4 conversion utilities offer better video quality and compression rates than Sony’s own pay-to-download tool.

One of the strongest advocates for the PSP’s support of open standards is Ken Kutaragi himself. Kutaragi openly admits that Sony’s prior refusal to support open standards “diluted innovation” but promises that future products will reflect how Sony is “growing up.” It would seem that the PSP’s still growing; a recently leaked incomplete firmware upgrade revealed that Sony hopes to eventually add e-mail, word processing, Web browsing, scheduling, voice communication, voice-to-text conversion, and music downloads via its SonicStage service. As long as these new capabilities are added in the same spirit as the current ones, it seems likely that a bevy of free third-party middleware will sprout up to enhance them, too.

When Kutaragi called the PSP the “the most beautiful thing in the world,” he was referring to its sleek, glossy good looks. But this isn’t just skin-deep. Once you start digging into the guts of the PSP and see how it supports widespread, open industry standards, an old adage comes to mind: True beauty lies within.

Andrew Vestal teaches English in the land of our friends to the East, and he knows a good bargain when he sees one.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine.





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