Can Sony Trump iTunes With New PlayStation Store? [Updated] | iLounge Backstage

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Can Sony Trump iTunes With New PlayStation Store? [Updated]

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By Jeremy Horwitz

Editor-in-Chief, iLounge
Published: Tuesday, April 15, 2008
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Two weeks ago, Sony froze the catalog of its online PlayStation Store—the central hub it uses to offer downloadable content for its PlayStation 3 console—and announced that it would be performing an extensive makeover in two weeks. This morning, the new PlayStation Store launched globally, and it’s a major improvement over the prior version, offering a simplified interface for browsing and downloading games and videos.

To go one step further, it looks like Sony finally has an online store interface that outdoes the one on Apple TV—now, the PlayStation 3’s only challenges are to populate the store with similar content, and get enough hardware out there to make a real impact on the digital marketplace. More photos and details are available by clicking on the headline above, or the read more link below.

[Updated: For readers unfamiliar with the past, present, or future of the PlayStation Store, Sony has been planning to challenge Apple by adding movie and TV show downloads to the Store. According to a report, the company has recently demonstrated the video download service to retailers and publishers, and Sony’s official PlayStation blog has confirmed that additional details are coming “very soon.” As such, the PlayStation Store, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace, and Apple TV’s version of the iTunes Store will be in direct competition with one another as sources for digital video downloads; this piece is intended to look at some of the ways Sony is bringing the PlayStation 3 up to speed for that fight.]

Key to the new store’s layout is a completely straightforward navigation system. The old PlayStation Store made you feel like you were playing a video game while trying to find content: hit the joystick right three times, up once, and then the circle button to go back a menu. Now, like Apple TV, one button brings you back a menu and another button brings you forward. The main and second-level menus give you a vertical list of options on the left, with context-specific choices on the right in a grid. Text is easy to read, and nicely balanced by art.

A fade/zoom effect like Apple TV’s brings new menus on and off of the screen. It’s one of a couple of nice little touches that make the new Store seem modern, and unlike just skipping through a bunch of slides someone whipped together.

This series of shots shows how you can download content that actually updates the appearance of the PlayStation 3’s interface. Note that the PlayStation Store is just one of a number of options from the system’s main menu, rather than ever-present “buy more stuff” links from all of the menu options. While Apple TV 2.0’s links everywhere approach makes business sense, it also transforms the interface into an apparent cash grab.

Under the Themes & Wallpapers section of the Store, you see a grid that provides sample art, titles, and descriptive text for each of the 20 options, as well as an arrow to see more content. Cropping or shrinking the art to fit into manageable boxes makes it easy to figure out what you’re hunting for, even in a large collection of content.

The Store’s only major visual miscue is this downloading interface, which is a relic of the earlier PlayStation Store. While the actual downloading process is very simple now, with nothing more than clicks to confirm your download (rather than joystick presses, agreements to licensing terms, et cetera), the translucent overlay on top of the file details menu makes the screen look cluttered until the download is done. A cleaner design for this portion of the interface would be nice; Apple TV got this part right for sure.

Voila. After a familiar installation process, the downloaded Call of Duty 4 theme replaces the PlayStation 3’s icons and background with new ones that promote the popular and excellent Activision game. Apple has been extremely resistant to “skinning” on its portable devices, but these theme packs are really cool options for users tired of the static look of the interface.

Another interesting feature of the new PlayStation Store is its collection of high-definition movie trailers. This shot doesn’t show all of the icons—Sony’s servers are apparently overwhelmed this morning with people downloading the new Store update—but there are lots of movies represented, nearly as many as on Apple TV. The interesting part:

You can choose resolutions for the trailers, including full 1080p video versions that are designed to take maximum advantage of the latest high-definition televisions, as well as lower-resolution HD and SD versions. Apple TV’s support for 1080p content is basically MIA at this point, and there isn’t any choice between trailer resolutions save for an HD trailer section and SD trailer section, with movies that may or may not overlap. This, despite the Apple.com QuickTime Trailers section, which often has multiple resolutions for every movie, including movies that haven’t for whatever reason made it on to Apple TV yet.

Sheer customer base aside, there are a few other non-trivial ways in which Apple has Sony beat, though. Plans aside, the PlayStation Store currently offers no music, podcasts, or real video content—you get trailers for Blu-ray Discs and theatrical releases, but not movies to purchase or rent. This store also has no streaming capability: everything is downloaded to your PlayStation 3, either in the foreground or background, and then watched, which is a huge advantage of Apple TV’s “start downloading and watch immediately” approach. And Sony’s price point of $399 is still prohibitive for mass-market penetration. While a $299 PlayStation 3 isn’t too far off at this point, the Store isn’t going to take off in a significant way until more people can use it, and there’s more content to be purchased. Sony is clearly headed in the right direction, though, and having used the old Store with some UI discomfort, I’m definitely looking forward to using the new one more in the future.

[Update 2: Though the Store doesn’t offer video streaming, Sony now enables you to leave the Store and start watching a video that has not yet finished downloading to your hard drive—a feature comparable to the way Apple TV’s video downloads work. Just like Apple TV, this feature requires significant caching to let you view high-definition content, as a test download last night stopped for extended periods five times during playback of a brief trailer; Sony also requires you to delete the file once it has been viewed.]

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Comments

1

If you have to ask, the answer is no.  If it could beat iTunes, you would know immediately.  You would say “ah ha!  This is the shiznit!”  Alas, it is not.

Posted by Brad Spry on April 15, 2008 at 9:28 AM (PDT)

2

I downloaded the firmware update and I’m pretty impressed. Sony obviously has designs on making the PlayStation Store much more viable and user-friendly, and I would not be surprised if the release of the much-anticipated Home project creates even more excitement.

Slowly but surely the PS3 is gaining some nice momentum. The plans for this console were very much geared toward longevity and flexibility, and I think, after a lot of hiccups, it’s paying off.

Also worth noting: Version 2.30 adds DTS and DTS-HD support for Blu Ray playback. I haven’t fired up a compatible film yet, but some of the accounts I’ve read online indicate that it sounds phenomenal.

Posted by Flippy Hambone on April 15, 2008 at 11:49 AM (PDT)

3

Why no update on when the Xbox 360 revamped its marketplace (talking about on-demand content on consoles)?

Or when the Wii store opened (talking about interface and consoles)?

This has nothing to do with macs or apple tv, really… but nice way to show off your new PS3, however smile

You do sound excited on the new features and the PS store. I’ll buy the MGS4 gray gunmetal edition, hopefully. Cheers.

Posted by Arturo Lugo on April 15, 2008 at 6:30 PM (PDT)

4

Arturo: Looks like you missed it, but this text appears at the top of backstage.ilounge.com:

“Backstage at iLounge is the combined blog of our editors, featuring casual and often only loosely iPod-related discussions that our readers may enjoy. Founded in July, 2004, Backstage has served as a launching pad for stories that later appear on the main site, and as a place to discuss portable phones, games and computers. Visit Backstage Archives for past stories, and bookmark backstage.ilounge.com for new ones.”

So yeah, Backstage isn’t here for “Macs or Apple TV.” It’s for whatever our editors happen to find interesting—like games. We’ve been covering the Wii since November 2006. And the PS3 since December 2006. And here’s the article on the Xbox 360 marketplace. Obviously we wouldn’t expect you to actually have read those articles, but at least look at the archives before suggesting we’re trying to show off some new console. We have better things to do with our time.

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on April 15, 2008 at 8:04 PM (PDT)

5

Oops, Arturo. You kind of got pwnt there. smile

In all seriousness, I am intrigued by Sony’s clear designs on waging a full-service media server war. I think, in retrospect, they probably did the right thing by letting Microsoft get the 360 to the market early. Sure, the 360 has sold well, XLM has been a success, and the game library has been excellent, but it’s obvious that SCEA’s philosophy wasn’t to simply beat all comers to the market in an effort to simply push product. They are learning from others’ slip-ups, particularly the 360 hardware failures (for the record, I am on my FOURTH XBox 360 since I bought one at launch in November 2005, while my original PS3 continues to perform flawlessly in its 16th month in my entertainment center) and the Apple TV’s half-baked arrival on the scene.

The PS3 is still lacking banner gaming exclusives but there’s obviously a brighter future here than originally speculated. You can pop in a bigger hard drive. You can count on constant, worthwhile firmware updates that will add meaningful features. It continues to be rated as one of the best overall Blu-Ray players on the market. The integration of Bluetooth enables keyboard/mouse support, which is a nice and oft-overlooked touch. And when Home launches, that will give the PlayStation community a different dimension to explore and enjoy.

For the record, I’m not a Sony devotee by any stretch. I have a 360, as mentioned, and have really enjoyed playing with others’ Wiis (that sounded vulgar, but I digress). I’ve been close to picking up an Apple TV, but at this rate, it’s premature to invest in yet another component for my home entertainment system, especially if existing ones will provide what I need.

Posted by Flippy Hambone on April 16, 2008 at 10:08 AM (PDT)

6

Flippy: Ultimately, Sony’s late start in the market was most likely a function of its own problems with engineering, software development, and cost structure, as well as Microsoft’s slipshod approach to hardware production, rather than an intentional choice to sit back and let others pave the road. It seems rather clear in retrospect that Microsoft was so obsessed with being first to market that it was willing to launch a product that it hadn’t properly tested and couldn’t guarantee would even live past its initial warranty period. Both companies have benefitted from significant post-launch revisions to hardware and software.

Contrast both companies’ products with Apple TV’s and Wii’s approaches. Microsoft and Sony have both stated that their consoles are really digital entertainment hubs, and have been working to expand those hubs from disc-based offerings (games, DVDs, and Blu-ray/HD-DVD movies) to other media. Wii is a game console and Nintendo has suggested that it has no further ambitions beyond that (save perhaps light exercise); there still isn’t even DVD playback in the unit despite early suggestions to the contrary. And then there’s Apple TV, which was supposed to be a “DVD player for the 21st Century,” minus of course the DVD player and now plus both streaming and downloadable Internet content. Each of the game consoles had a “reason for being” and the opportunity to expand from there, while Apple TV still feels like it’s missing a core feature to make it a more persistent part of your life, like a DVR.

Firmware updates definitely continue to make each of these products more interesting over time, especially in Sony’s case, though a hardware update to Apple TV seems like a brighter move at this point. Everyone knows that Apple TVs would fly off shelves if they included DVRs, which would require additional hardware, most likely integrated into the machine rather than sold as a separate Elgato-like USB-port connected accessory.

On a semi-related note, isn’t it interesting that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo don’t seem so concerned about subscription accounting for their machines, even though they churn out more firmware updates than Apple? And that Sony keeps making major feature additions, proudly cataloging each on its web site rather than just posting a generic “bug fixes” description?

Posted by Jeremy Horwitz in East Amherst, NY, USA on April 16, 2008 at 10:50 AM (PDT)

7

Jeremy, you raise sound points. I shouldn’t have implied Sony’s tardiness to the market with the PS3 was calculated—the release date delays and ridiculous production costs at the outset made it appear in mid-2006 that Sony was on the verge of collapsing beneath its ego. PS3 launched with a smattering of mediocre games and a feeble online component, so it looked like all those who laughed at Sony’s folly had cause to do so. And it piled up: Rockstar exclusive DLC for GTA IV to the 360, Gears of War stunted the PS3 launch momentum somewhat, and the Wii dazzled everybody to the point that the PS3 was almost DOA.

But add frequent hardware improvements, price drops, better games, firmware tweaks…and suddenly the PS3 does, for the first time, look like a viable home entertainment hub, especially if a full-fledged download service comes to fruition. Put it this way—my parents don’t know Ratchet & Clank from Tony Orlando and Dawn, but they put a PS3 in their entertainment center solely to play Blu-Rays, upscaled DVDs, and ripped music from the hard drive.

I think Apple TV is in the picture still, of course. There was enough promise in the first iteration of the device and now I foresee something along the lines of the iPod’s click-wheel development taking Apple TV to another level, so to speak. The recent firmware overhaul really gave it a kick in the pants, and I would imagine it helped (or will help) push product over time. Obviously, though, we are in the infancy of the whole on-demand video age, and until Apple or Sony or Vudu or Blockbuster develops a healthy catalog of HD offerings that can be streamed quickly and easily, who knows what magic box will wind up on top?

I conclude by saying that Microsoft will never get there. As revolutionary as XLM is in many ways, it sorely needs freshening. The bladed look is now staid and no longer as functional as it once was. The 360’s semi-annual firmware updates haven’t been earth-shattering. And God knows that the movie choices (TV episodes are much better, at least) leave much to be desired. I have no idea why a given week’s releases on XLM might feature the works of Rob Zombie, John Ford, and John Frankenheimer. Eclectic? Sure. Prolific? Hardly.

Posted by Flippy Hambone on April 16, 2008 at 1:31 PM (PDT)

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