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Tangled up in Blu-ray

Japanese electronics giant Sony is known for creating proprietary technology standards. Sometimes that works, like when the PlayStation and its sequel, the PS2, became the top-selling home videogame consoles of their respective generations. And the handheld PSP looks like another winner. But videogames are something of a special case; systems made by different companies are, by their very nature, incompatible with each other.

In other areas, Sony's proprietary formats have been wash-outs. Sony's Betamax videocassette format lost out to VHS. Its memory sticks are much less popular than SD memory cards. In music, its MiniDiscs gained a small following, but never came close to threatening CD's (or now, hard disks and flash memory), and its ATRAC music compression format is vastly less popular than MP3.

But Sony is starting to recognize that its strategy has been a failure. After being absolutely crushed in portable digital music players by Apple's iPod, Sony made its new players MP3-compatible. (Actually, it's making its MiniDiscs MP3-compatible, too.)

And now, Sony is backing away from a format war over next-generation high-definition DVD's. The company isn't about to abandon its own technologically superior Blu-ray standard, mind you. Blu-ray recorders are already on sale in Japan, the upcoming PS3 videogame console will be Blu-ray based, and, crucially, Blu-ray has the support of other companies besides just Sony. The Blu-ray recording deck below, for example, is made by Hitachi:

But Sony's signalling that it may embrace the rival HD-DVD standard as an alternative. IDG News Service reports:
"Listening to the voice of the consumers, having two rival formats is disappointing and we haven't totally given up on the possibility of integration or compromise," Ryoji Chubachi, Sony's president-elect, said at a news conference Thursday in which he discussed the company's performance and future strategy.

...Chubachi's comments mark the second time that a Sony executive has signaled the possibility of a compromise between the two camps. In January, Ken Kutaragi, executive deputy president of Sony, said a format war was not in the public interest and that Sony had not ruled out the possibility of uniting the formats.
People don't like having to pick and choose between incompatible formats. If you're lucky enough to have a format that becomes the de facto standard, great. But if not, forcing customers to use special files, on special media, via special devices, is bad business.

The best approach for device makers today appears to be: Forget about proprietary formats. Just make your product useable by as many people as possible. If it's good, they'll buy it.

It's not a new theory, either. It worked for Sony itself, over a quarter-century ago, with the product that in many ways defined it as a company: the Walkman.

Looks like Sony just can't get a break.




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