Monday, June 17, 2013

Hope: If Corporations Can Learn, Then Maybe Governments Can Too?

Okay. This is a difficult call to make, and I'm making it with serious reservations, but I'm gonna make it, and I hope I'm not wrong.

I think Sony might just have learned how not to be a pack of fucking arseholes.

Sony has a long, ugly history of arseholery. In 1999, I first got to use a MiniDisc recorder when I worked with the radio station at Wondai, in Queensland. Minidiscs were proprietary Sony tech, and they were pure magic. They recorded digitally to a little magnetic disc that had excellent storage for the time. The recordings were very clean and clear. The whole unit was a really convenient size, and the fact that the recordings were digital and on disc meant that in theory, editing them should have been a doddle.

Except, of course, that fucktarded Sony kept the file format jealously to themselves. Nor would they permit easy downloading of the files to a computer. Nor would they let anyone build editing software or anything else. You could edit... sort of... using the functions on the hardware. But not the way you can edit MP3 recordings now.

I loved the fidelity of the MiniDisc, and the ease of use. But the fact that I couldn't actually do with it all the things I wanted to do -- make soundtracks, record stuff for animation, edit music -- made me give it up as a bad job. Along with 'most everyone else, I notice. Frankly, I think Sony must have taken a major bath on MiniDisc technology -- which is a pity. They shouldn't have. It's only in the last few years that portable MP3 recorders have come down in price, and up in quality to the point where they can match MD tech.

But that was Sony's mistake, wasn't it.

And then there was the RootKit thing. Anybody else remember when Sony actually put malware on their music discs, to invade the computers of people who put the songs on their machines? If you don't recall, here's the Wikipedia article, and here's an article from the contemporary Wired magazine. I can't be stuffed rewriting it, but the gist is exactly as I said: Sony actually loaded some very nasty, very sneaky malware onto their discs to fuck with their own customers. All in the name of Digital Rights Management.

I haven't bought a Sony disc since then, by the way.

Then there was the Librie. Anybody remember that? It was the first commercial e-reader. Sony used the proprietary e-ink technology to build an electronic reader. Unfortunately, they did it only in the Japanese market. And they made a tight deal with a bunch of Japanese magazines: you could ONLY buy content through Sony, from very specific sources, and after sixty days, your content vanished because your license had run out. Seriously: here's a link.

This was back in 2004. Well before Kindle, or anybody else. And yeah: it tanked and died. No surprises, really... it couldn't handle anything except Sony's proprietary file-types, and what with your purchased content vanishing after two months, it didn't exactly set the consumers ablaze with enthusiasm.

Honestly, I'd really like to know how much Sony lost on the Librie and the MiniDisc. I'm betting it was a lot, though, because lately, things are... different.

There's my high-fidelity Sony voice recorder, for example. Reasonably cheap. Great quality stereo microphone. Records directly to high-bitrate MP3. Lots and lots of storage space. Talks to my computer just like it was a simple USB thumb drive, through a standard USB interface built into the recorder. You just plug it in, and the files are there, right away. Do with them as you will. Better still, it has a rechargeable AAA battery... but the battery itself is easily accessed and replaced, when it dies. (You listening, Apple? You and your fucking iPod batteries? Fuck you!)

Doesn't sound like the same company, does it? But I love my Sony voice recorder. Wouldn't part with it.

Then there's the Sony Smart Watch. Yeah, I didn't know it existed either. But it does, and Sony has just opened up the entire system, allowing external developers and open source people to dive in and play with it. Cynically, one might say that Sony is hoping to create a community of people willing to revive a poorly selling item... but then, why is that cynical? Smart watches are a nifty idea, and frankly, handing them to the open source community is a whole lot smarter than trying to keep them locked up, like, say, some kind of iPhone.

And then finally, there's the PS4. Again: if you're not aware of the current war between Microsoft's corporate tyrannosaur, the Xbox One, and Sony's DRM-free, region-free, Internet-requirements free Playstation Four -- well, it's not up to me to enlighten you. You can do your own Googling. But the point is that Sony has just harpooned Microsoft so effectively that the Xbox brand may never recover... and they did it purely by allowing customers a degree of trust and fair usage.

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. According to James Bond and Ian Fleming, three times is enemy action -- so I'm going to paraphrase, and suggest that three times, in this case, represents something of a milestone. I think Sony, as a corporation, has learned that repeatedly ass-fucking its customer base on things like fair usage, copyright and digital rights management is a fantastic way to burn goodwill and lose money. I think Sony may have actually discovered that customers want to own what they buy, and want to use the things they buy in the manner that they expect.

Now, I think corporations are just about the ugliest, dumbest, most singleminded and fucked up organisms this planet has ever produced, and at one point, Sony was a shining example of the very worst. But something has happened. Something changed.

Maybe... just maybe... they learned.

Who knows? Maybe there's hope after all.