Sony's schizophrenia

Frank Rose's long feature on the schizophrenia inside Sony (which is simultaneously an entertainment giant and a consumer electronics giant) is excellent. DRM is destroying Sony's product lines, from "NetMD" minidisc recorders than can't share over the net to digital televisions equipped with restrictive outputs and recording tools that hobble your ability to tape and manipulate programming.

The company that gave us the Walkman has all-but-abandoned the personal stereo market, focuing on dead-end tech like CDs and MiniDiscs, instead of hard-disc players that offer more flexibility and utility. The personal stereo market has been taken over by niche players like Apple and Creative Labs (Creative was just a tiny little startup in Singapore when its products rocketed it to success, the kind of outfit Sony was accustomed to grinding into paste without even thinking — today, it's sucking away tons of business from Sony's personal stereo market).

Sony's not pouring its R&D efforts into better products that offer more value. Instead, it's chasing a DRM scheme that makes every product it touches less useful.

Sony's betrayal of its customers is a big part of the crisis in the public's rights in copyright today. From 1976 to 1984, Sony fought tooth and nail for the right of Americans to record video off their televisions; today, Sony is part of the RIAA's efforts to stifle innovation and contract fair use to a sorry, mingy speck.

Where the iPod simply lets you sync its contents with the music collection on your personal computer, Walkman users are hamstrung by laborious "check-in/check-out" procedures designed to block illicit file-sharing. And a Walkman with a hard drive? Not likely, since Sony's copy-protection mechanisms don't allow music to be transferred from one hard drive to another – not an issue with the iPod. "We do not have any plans for such a product," says Kimura, the smile fading. "But we are studying it."

Really? No plans? When the world leader in consumer electronics takes a pass on the hottest portable music player out there, you have to wonder what gives. Sony became a global giant on the basis of innovative devices manufactured by the millions on nothing more than a hunch that people would buy them. Now Apple is delivering the innovation while Sony studies the matter.