Requiem for a UMDream: PSP movies flop, with lessons for Apple | iLounge Article

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Requiem for a UMDream: PSP movies flop, with lessons for Apple

Who wants to pay $15 to $30 for a sub-DVD-quality video? If you raised your hand, consider yourself rare. Over the past year, Sony Computer Entertainment tried to popularize pocket-sized but DVD-priced movies, a market and content it had all to itself in the absence of an iTunes Music Store from Apple Computer. But according to an article in The Hollywood Reporter today, that effort has failed, and there are lessons to be learned as a consequence.

Buy Your Favorite Movies - Again!

One year ago, Sony Computer Entertainment claimed that it had a juggernaut on its hands. In addition to playing games and music, the company’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) would also be able to play back full-length theatrical movies stored on Universal Media Discs (UMDs), one of several features distinguishing Sony’s device from Nintendo’s popular, cartridge-based Game Boy products. Movie playback wasn’t just an abstract possibility, Sony suggested: it quickly trumpeted the support of “several motion picture studios” as “validati[on of] the multi-media entertainment value proposition of PSP,” and itself released several films in UMD format. Amazingly, Sony and these studios were operating under the presumption that consumers would pay DVD-level prices for lower-resolution films they could only watch on their PSPs; they collectively proceeded to release many more UMD format movies, and even built a critical mass of titles. Despite persistent whispers that most people weren’t especially interested, Sony repeatedly suggested that UMD movies were popular, and even claimed that videos - not games - would comprise 60% of UMD sales, with an estimated 130 million UMDs being sold in 2008.

The house of cards began to fall earlier this year. Though Sony took steps to counter reports of sagging interest in UMD movies by claiming that titles were “successful” and “still selling well,” its movie studio partners became unusually candid about the platform’s failings. Warner Bros. openly told film industry trade publication Variety in February that sales were disappointing, and Paramount reportedly decided to stop releasing titles for the format at that point. Today, the signs of gloom became undeniable. A second trade publication, The Hollywood Reporter, ran an article discussing the failure of the UMD movie platform, quoting an executive with Universal Studios who dubbed UMD “another Sony bomb,” and said that sales were “near zilch.” The article also suggested that leading retailer Wal-Mart is dropping support for UMD movies, and that even Sony Pictures had conceded that the format was losing shelf space.

What went wrong? Though The Hollywood Reporter attributed the PSP’s decline in part to “the arrival last fall of Apple’s video iPod,” Sony Pictures’ President Benjamin Feingold claimed that the inability of PSP videos to be played on bigger TV screens was at least partially to blame, along with the PSP’s inclusion of a Memory Stick reader, capable of playing back user-ripped DVDs. Said differently, consumers apparently didn’t want to pay twice for the same movies they’d previously purchased, and didn’t always want to watch them on the device’s little screen.

Lessons For Apple: Watch Sony, Do The Opposite

Putting the iPod’s possible role in the PSP’s decline aside for the moment - a curious point, given that no one is or was selling movie content for the iPod as PSP movie sales slumped - there are other lessons to be learned from this story. The first: as with CDs, most consumers aren’t interested in paying full DVD prices for stripped-down versions of movies - if they were, they’d buy the DVDs. That’s the reason $9.99 album download pricing was the right move for the low-bitrate songs sold through iTunes; to make more money, companies will need to offer an equally good or better-than-physical disc experience. As we said last April, pricing UMDs at $20 was an absurd idea, and unless they offer DVD quality and a superior archival solution, similarly priced movie downloads would be equally suicidal.

Second, movies optimized for small screens - even good ones, like the 4.3-inch, 480x272-pixel PSP display - aren’t enough to satisfy mainstream consumers. People want to buy a movie once and watch it on multiple devices. Sony seemed to learn this lesson late in the game by planning $30 premium movie packages that would include both a DVD and a UMD in the same package, but the higher-than-standard DVD price wasn’t warmly received. The alternative, of course, is to create a single digital video file that looks great and plays on any device, or one that can be quickly scaled downwards for playback on portable devices.

Apple appears to understand that the iPod isn’t the only or best place to watch its videos; in recent months, it has released Front Row for all of its new computers, as clear a sign as any that the company intends digital videos to be viewable on both small and big screens. But it’s still missing at least one part of the equation: TV-ready video quality. On the bright side, it’s easy to connect your iPod to a TV with one of Apple’s $19 AV cables - a computer-to-TV wireless video streamer would of course be nice, too - but unless you’re a video fanatic, what you’ll see on your big screen from Apple won’t be pretty. Videos converted by iTunes for the iPod and videos sold through the iTunes Music Store are still being formatted at a primitive 320x240 resolution, which doesn’t look great on most televisions sold today, or when scaled for full-screen viewing on a Mac or PC monitor.

Third, and although this is obvious, discs are a loser of a format for today’s portable devices. If the PSP was in any way undermined by the release of the fifth-generation iPod, it was for one reason: the device and the introduction of videos to the iTunes Music Store proved conclusively that you didn’t need to carry around a big player or collection of discs to watch video on the go. In fact, something the size of an iPod - actually, an iPod itself - could pretty much do the trick alone, aided by a properly functioning digital download system.

Movies in iTunes: Another Chance to Grow the iPod

The iTunes Music Store’s approach to videos isn’t perfect - besides video quality, we still see episodes that are incorrectly tagged (e.g. Wonder Showzen’s “Birth” episode, which we downloaded just last night and found to be the totally wrong show, as iTMS users have commented in the Store to no effect), and the number of different shows available is still small - but it continues to get better with every passing week. Most people expect further expansion of the iTunes Music Store in 2006, specifically embracing theatrical movie downloads, and of course, we’re hoping that Apple doesn’t repeat Sony’s mistakes in the process. Further polishing of the Store’s video quality, refining the pricing model for short videos, and defining full-length movie pricing have the potential to further expand the appeal of both iPods and iTunes-ready computers as video players; if Apple can bridge that content over to a TV, and provide a smart permanent storage solution for downloaded video, the appeal of its digital video initiatives will grow even more.

What do you think? Did Sony’s pricing or quality cause the collapse of the UMD format for movies? Was something else, like the iPod, really to blame? What lessons should Apple take away from Sony’s experiences? As always, your comments and opinions are appreciated.

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Comments

1

As an owner of a PSP and a 5G iPod I have to say that I mostly agree with you.  The ultimate problem is getting the video to the device.

On a PSP, it’s much more problematic to carry around a half dozen UMDs for any kind of variety.  Only recently have Memory Stick Pro Duo cards come down to a reasonable price, so ultimately the PSP hasn’t been a very friendly device for video.

The iPod, OTOH, is great for portability and selection especially if you have a 60GB.  However, transcoding videos to it has recently become a total pain in the arse since Videora stopped working.  And I’m NOT paying Apple $30 for QTP.  Most of the shows you can buy on iTMS seem like a rip-off since you’ve already paid for them once via cable/satellite.

So, probably the “best” solution is something like the Neuros MPEG4 Recorder II.  For about $150 street, you can convert all those TV shows for “free”.

This needs to become super easy if it’s going to take off like DAPs have.  So far, it’s not and I’m a very technical user.

Posted by hepcat on March 30, 2006 at 10:15 PM (PDT)

2

I don’t have a PSP, but I do have a 60GB Photo iPod, and a 60GB video iPod.  I reserve the Photo for music files, and the video for feature films.  Using the excellent (and free) program Handbrake, I have found it simple (although a little time consuming) to export most of my favorite DVDs to iPod video format.  It has changed the way I think about movies.  I now carry my collection of 85 of my favorite movies with me everywhere.  It’s true the quality could be better, but for the convenience factor alone of having a great selection of films to watch on the ipod screen or a tv screen anywhere I go, I think it’s a huge success (that will only get better).  I can’t imagine how PSP ever intended to complete with the simplicity and logic of the video ipod.

Posted by vdowiz on March 31, 2006 at 1:17 AM (PDT)

3

Actually this was a reason for me to give my old 2nd generation away and get new ipod video. So i can have my music and also special my movies with me. I travel a lot and live in 3 different countries in the moment. I’m not so much in TV so it is nice just where ever I’m put my ipdod on the TV and watch my favorite movies which I convert or see my favorite shows which are hard to be up date when you life in the states and europe. Ok the only little bug is that it is a little bit time consuming to transfer it into m4v but this is not a every day operation so I can live with it. I’m forward this you can get movies via iTunes soon. It would be a nightmare for me to have all this UMD’s with me or always replacing the datas on the memory stick. I remember the time which i had a minidisc player and all the disc. The only good one on this was the battery life ... on this apple have to get it a little bit better if its possible ... Nils

Posted by nilus on March 31, 2006 at 7:16 AM (PDT)

4

I use to own a PSP and got rid of it after a few months: 1. I didn’t play it much because the lacking of games, and the games were almost just as much as PS2, xbox, and Gamecube games but less fun, 2. I wasn’t going to buy UMD movies, movies that I already had, because I would of been limited to only the PSP, but I had the option to buy a 1gig memory stick and convert movies to play on the PSP for then I would of had to shell out $120 for a memory stick where I could only fit 1 good quality movie on the memory stick.  To me having the PSP was way too expensive to own, it was pretty though.  I feel that Sony has had a such a problem with trying to force these other formats( betamax,minidisk, umd, memory stick, blueray, etc.) on consumers when in reality consumers want to stick with formats that are better supported with a variety of devices than have to own a Sony product to use its format.  Sony has always pushed for their own proprietary formats so they can reap the rewards when everybody is converted…the only thing is that they’ve failed each time.

Posted by bradbajuz on March 31, 2006 at 8:13 AM (PDT)

5

The problem with Sony’s Solution has always been inter-operability.
My brother has a Sony Handycam which uses Memory Stick Duo.
He also has a Sony Playstation2
Not to mention Sony Amp, DVD Player and DVD/VHS Combo Player.
What incentive does Sony give him to invest in a Vaio and a PSP? None.
His Handycam stores Video as MPEG-2 on the MSD Card or DV on DV Tapes. It connects via iLink.
His PS2 has an iLink socket, but it can’t be used for playing back his Handycam.
The Vaio would still need to transcode and rescale the MPEG-2 to PSP MPEG-4 before he could play it on the PSP - a long and arduous process using the Sony Handycam Proprietary software to extract the Video from the MSD or DV Tape, and then converting it using 3rd-party software to play on the PSP.

With an Apple setup, I can plug my cheap JVC DV Cam into the firewire port on my iBook, fire up iMovie and export the video direct to iPod compatible h.264 MPEG-4.
Guess which solution I prefer…

Posted by SalvoDan on March 31, 2006 at 12:48 PM (PDT)

6

I would definitely have to say if Sony made standard dvd players that played UMD discs, obviously with a/v connections to hook up to a normal T.V. UMD’s would make so much more sense to purchase. I own a psp but refuse to pay so much for dvds that I can only watch on such a small screen. We would see an increase in UMD discs. Think about it; It’s a great idea…Sony I hope your Listening, or atleast reading this. -aVi

Posted by BookEmDanO on April 4, 2006 at 12:33 PM (PDT)

7

Sony’s motto is “always give the customer what Sony wants”. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to see another one of its over-priced proprietry formats fall by the wayside.

The last thing Sony wants is interchangeble digital copies of its media in the hands of its customers.

Posted by yashin on April 5, 2006 at 8:21 AM (PDT)

8

(I thought I’d already posted to this topic…I must be brain-farting again…*sigh*)

The PSP (in my hands) has been a do-all device that, frankly, doesn’t do anything really well aside from gaming, and I even have (ergonomic) issues with that aspect.

When the first UMD discs were on store shelves to coincide with the PSP release, I was surprised at Sony’s gall at pricing the movie content. UMDs priced higher than their DVD counterpart? Is that any way to convince the buying public that their new handheld is a viable alternative to a portable DVD player, or a notebook with a DVD drive? Well, now that a year has passed I still only have the tossed-in Spidey movie as the only title in my UMD library.

I HAVE noted recently that the price of some of these UMD movie titles have come down a bit, though for a single-use media format it’s still far too expensive to be worthy of any serious consideration from me.

Flakey music capability (the interface seems like it’s designed by engineers from Sony’s CD player division, not a dedicated DAP department that would UNDERSTAND what ID3 information is all about)...single-device UMD discs…less-than enthralling (or useful, user-friendly, etc.) web browsing…yes, Sony has on its hands a real win-uh here.

Speaking of hands, even my sore thumbs applaud you, Sony (often like that after extended gaming, something that doesn’t seem to happen with similar-lengthy sessions with my DS). (*SARCASM WARNING*...in case you didn’t realize that.)

S-O-N-Y…if ever there was ever a more foul four-letter word…(apparently I’m still smarting over my expensive-but-horribly-crappy projection big screen after all these years, not to mention rootkits and short-lived phones and alarm clocks and top-end DVD players, as well PS2s that go BUST in the night, as mine did a while back…)

It feels GOOD to vent…but it’s still not making up for all MY S-word mistakes.

Posted by flatline response on April 15, 2006 at 1:40 AM (PDT)

9

The UMD fiasco is a perfect summary of what’s wrong with Sony thees days ... instead of trying to coddle internal dept - they should be out there trying to kill each other ...

NO VIDEO OUT to sell portable DVD players?

Memory Choice - Of course, memory stick - and as Sony intended - only saving game files and as a concession to fight ipod - music files ...

No video - of course - someone had to hack it.

Honestly who but Sony thought UMD’s would be popular - UMD’s are NOT convenient - games you accept since there is no substitute but movies? As you point no extras and no video out even if 99% of people never use video out - at least you give people the option - how many people actually output ipod video to a mointor? 10% but it makes everyone happy to know it’s there.

Apple smart.

Sony not so smart.

itunes is CONVENIENT.

If your ipod is connected and evrything is clicked YES, you can buy movies or music with ONE CLICK.

UMD? No.

Posted by jbelkin on April 18, 2006 at 8:20 PM (PDT)

10

I think a big part of Sony’s prblem is that they were looking for a way to combine two largely incompatible mediums onto a single device to compete with three very different devices - the ipod video, the nintendo DS, and portable DVD players.  the UMDs are a fine format for competing with the DS, because portable-gamers are accustomed to cartridge-style games being insterted into their handheld device of choice. 

The problems with movies on UMD have already been mentioned, but it creates a third problem - try to make one device do too much and it won’t do anything well.  Watching movies is a very different sort of entertainment experience from playing games, and requires a different sort of gadget to do well.  there are already digital media players out there (like the ipod video) that do this well, and portable dvd players have the added bonus of being compatible with the movies people already own. 

sony tried to make a single device that would serve as an ipod-killer and a DS-killer, but it only killed itself.

Posted by Chibithulhu on April 23, 2006 at 1:09 PM (PDT)

11

I also own a touch and PSP.  I agree the UMD disk was a wrong move by Sony but 8 gig memory sticks off places such as ebay etc work fine and i use handbrake and QTP to do most of my conversions for TV shows etc for both ipod an PSP.

The PSP does do video out i use a component cable the only issues are the TV needs to be progressive scan to play games and the games are not full screen but considerably larger than the PSP screen.  The PSP also has built in Skype which Apple does not want on the touch as it would cut into iphone sales.

Safari on the touch is a better browser than that supplied with the PSP.

Game wise I like puzzel and RPF/SIM and play sudoku a lot, i also have lemmings, and cut down but still playable dungeon siege spin off, and sims castaway ( which in my opion is the best of the sim castaway incarnations) along with a few others, the Ipod touch games are basic to say the least in the main part since it was designed mainly as a video and song player in my opinion.

They both have their good points. 

Apple is no angle it has crippled the itouch to stop it competing against its flagship iphone and even some apps like the iCAL have been crippled on the itouch eg you can see the dates and items it has synced from your imac but not change or add to ICal on the touch . . . pretty stupid really (been hanging around mr gates for too long i suspect) . . .

One thing i noticed when i got an alarm for an appointment on a Saturday when i first set up itouch was the dates and times where all wrong so after some checking i found for some strange reason Ical app on the touch does not use the location and time zone you have enter for the itouch it has its own time zone and location set up . . .

As i said they both have their good a bad points the itouch depending on what model you buy has more memory built in the PSP.  Battery life last much much longer on the PSP and is easy to swap if it goes flat or even replace with a heavy duty one.

The PSP via the USB port looks like a memory stick to your computer and so you can save the info on any machine and copy files even if the psp cant play them. I have used mine to do this when i need to transfer files.  it is not reliant on a single program, nor do you have constraints from moving files from your Imac to you PC laptop (could not afford an iMac and a power book LOL) and then only files Itunes is happy with . . .

Nuff Said

Posted by captainskurvy on October 5, 2008 at 5:04 PM (PDT)

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