There’s always risk in innovation. When you’re creating a new product or service there’s always the chance that nobody will want what you’re creating. Similarly whatever you end up creating could very well end up grating against the current norms in such a way that your product is almost wholly rejected by those its aimed at. A great example of this, which I covered in the past, was Windows Vista. In order for Microsoft to move ahead into the future they had to break away from some of their old paradigms and this drew the ire of many of their loyal customers. The damage that was done there is still being felt today with slower adoption rates of their latest product but had it not been for this initial failure they may not have been enjoying the level of success that Windows 7 has today.
In fact many pioneering products and services were first faced with dismal (albeit, mostly profitable) reception initially. Steam was a great example of this, debuting back in a time where broadband penetration numbers in many countries wasn’t particularly great and sought to deliver all games digitally direct to the consumer. Couple this with the fact that they were cutting out the publishers and distributors in the process the guys at Valve faced an extremely long, uphill battle in order for their platform to gain dominance. Still three years later they started to get big titles releasing on their platform and the rest, as they say, is history.
Interestingly enough I began to notice similar things happening with the Playstation Portable. Whilst the next version of the handheld, the NGP, is not going to be a digital only download device Sony has recently said that all games will be available digitally with only the bigger titles coming to the physical world:
“One thing we learnt from PSP, is that we want to have simultaneous delivery in digital and physical for NGP. Just to clarify that, all games that appear physically will be made available digitally, said House. He added, “Not necessarily all games have to be made available physically. And having the option of a digital-only method affords more creative risk-taking, and that’s because you don’t-have that in-built risk of physical inventory.”
For those who follow Sony you’d be aware of the dismal failure that was the PSP Go. Debuting at an insanely high price (costing just a hair below a full PS3) whilst offering little in the way of improvements the PSP Go was never going to be a phenomenal success. However it was particularly hampered by the lack of compatibility with its current gen brethren, doing away with the UMD drive in favor of a fully digital distribution model. This annoyed PSP customers to no end because their current collection of games could not be migrated onto the new platform (other than through nefarious means). Looking at the NGP there’s no way to get UMD games onto it but since most people are already aware that their current UMD titles will not have a format transition to the new platform they’ve avoided doing the same amount of damage to their next generation handheld as they did to the PSP Go.
Failure teaches you where you went wrong and where you should be heading in order to avoid making such mistakes again. Many successful products have been built on the backs of dismal failures, just look at satellite phones and radio for example. Sometimes it requires a risk taker to pave the way forward for those who will profit from the endeavor and hopefully that risk taker gets some of the kudos down the line. Digital distribution is one of those such areas where path has already been beaten and even some of the pioneers are continuing to profit from it.
My history with Sony can only really only be described as one of their fan boys. It all started well over a decade ago when I picked up my first Playstation, several years after they had been released. I loved that console dearly and when the Playstation 2 was announced I threw myself into wild amounts of debt with my parents so I could pick up one of the consoles on launch day. This extended to the time when they released their first portable gaming system, the Playstation Portable, as I convinced my then boss to let me take one home before the official release date. I’ve spent a good chunk of time with my PSP over the past few years and even still use it today for the odd game of Lumines or Guilty Gear. Still ever since some teaser images were released of it’s successor I’ve been eagerly awaiting its debut and yesterday afternoon finally saw an official announcement from Sony.
That there is the next generation of Sony’s portable gaming systems. On the surface it doesn’t look to be much more than an overgrown PSP with an additional analog control stick but the real meat of this device is in what’s under the hood, as shown by it’s impressive specifications:
|CPU||ARM® Cortex™-A9 core (4 core)|
|Approx. 182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm (width x height x depth) (tentative, excludes largest projection)|
|5 inches (16:9), 960 x 544, Approx. 16 million colors, OLED|
Multi touch screen (capacitive type)
|Rear touch pad||Multi touch pad (capacitive type)|
|Cameras||Front camera, Rear camera|
|Sound||Built-in stereo speakers|
|Sensors||Six-axis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer), Three-axis electronic compass|
Wi-Fi location service support
|Keys / Switches||PS button|
Directional buttons (Up/Down/Right/Left)
Action buttons (Triangle, Circle, Cross, Square)
Shoulder buttons (Right/Left)
Right stick, Left stick
START button, SELECT button
Volume buttons (+/-)
|Mobile network connectivity (3G)|
IEEE 802.11b/g/n (n = 1×1)(Wi-Fi) (Infrastructure mode/Ad-hoc mode)
Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR （A2DP/AVRCP/HSP）
Such specifications are becoming somewhat of a trademark of Sony, opting to go for the most powerful system they can deliver on a chosen platform. It’s been a double edged sword for them as whilst they can always claim the specifications crown their products are then hampered by their high cost, as illustrated with every console they’ve released. Still this thing is mightily impressive with connectivity rivalling that of today’s smart phones and processing power that hasn’t been seen before in a device of its size.
There are a few notable things to mention about Sony’s next handheld and one of them is shown in the picture above. That’s a capacitive touch panel that allows you to interact with the NGP, much like the touchscreen on any modern phone. Many companies have experimented with these in the past as a way to forego having a touchscreen, eliminating the need to touch the screen and leave fingerprints all over it. Interestingly enough though Sony decided to include a touchscreen on the front as well, meaning you can interact with it via both ways. How this is going to be used remains to be seen but its addition does make for some interesting possibilities.
Of notable absence is also any form of a media drive, ala the UMD. Whilst the format seemed like a good idea initially it was plagued by problems like reducing the battery life in half and lack of blank media like other formats. The former was an unfortunate problem that could never be worked around and the latter an attempt to stop piracy which failed miserably. Sony then attempted to revamp the PSP brand with the PSP Go which did away with the UMD in favour of digital distribution. However the PSP Go had abysmal adoption rates with many users outraged that their UMD collections were now completely useless. Still the PSP Go has paved the way for the NGP much like Windows Vista did for Windows 7 and the lack of any kind of media drive on the NGP shows that Sony is committed to a fully digital distribution network going forward.
Sony’s had a hard time in the portable gaming world but the fact remains they’re the only other company who’s still trying to take on the king of the market, Nintendo. Whilst the 3DS does look good on the surface its high price and the publics general disinterest in 3D means that Sony has a real chance to make a grab for the handheld crown with the NGP. However they have a real uphill battle ahead of them, especially when you consider that their new hand held will probably be more expensive than the 3DS. For a rabid Sony fan like myself it’s a no brainer, I’ll definitely be grabbing one of these on launch day just because it looks like such a versatile piece of kit. We’ll have to see if its worth buying as a game console when the time comes but it’s shaping up to be an interesting year for the handheld space.
I readily admit that I’m a bit of a tinkerer. There’s something really enjoyable about taking something you bought and squeezing extra functionality out of it, especially if it unlocks something that no product currently fits. I remember after having my PlayStation Portable for a while that I heard of the many great things that could be done with it, so I set out to mod it. A couple days later I had it streaming live video from my PC over our wireless network which was quite an impressive feat back in those days. Today the device hacker scene is alive and well on almost any platform that can be exploited leading to a game of cat and mouse between the creators of said devices and those who would seek to exploit them.
Now I’m not going to be naive and pretend like there aren’t nefarious motives behind parts of the hacking scene. Indeed the main motivator for quite a lot of hacks that enable people to unlock certain bits of functionality is usually done in aid of pirating legitimate software. In fact for the Xbox 360 the only hack available is arguably only for pirating software, as Microsoft’s hard line on banning users who do it shows. Still the never ending game of cat and mouse that companies play with the recreational hacking crowd doesn’t appear to make much fiscal sense on the surface as the man hours required to try and protect such systems always appear to fail with little more than a couple weeks from a few skilled individuals.
Probably one of the platforms where this kind of behaviour is almost encouraged would be Android. For starters the entire system is open source so if you were so inclined you could write custom packages for it to unlock almost any functionality you wanted. It also seems that the vast majority of Android handset manufacturers only put mild roadblocks in the way of those seeking to gain root level privileges on the devices, akin to the CD in the drive checks of games of yesteryear. Still it seems that the trend may be shifting somewhat with the recent Droid X, touted as the best Android phone to date, employing some rather drastic moves to prevent end users from tampering with it:
Motorola has apparently locked down the phone to the point where any modification attempts — including “rooting” the phone to install unauthorized apps, or changing its firmware — could render it completely inoperable (or “bricked”). The only way to fix it is to return the phone to Motorola, reports the Android fansite MyDroidWorld.
The company is using a technology called eFuseto secure the device. It runs when the phone boots up, and it checks to make sure that the phone’s firmware, kernel information, and bootloader are legit before it actually lets you use the device. Here’s MyDroidWorld’s explanation:
If the eFuse failes to verify this information then the eFuse receives a command to “blow the fuse” or “trip the fuse”. This results in the booting process becoming corrupted and resulting in a permanent bricking of the Phone. This FailSafe is activated anytime the bootloader is tampered with or any of the above three parts of the phone has been tampered with.
Us device hackers know the risks when we go into them, it’s part of the fun! I remember when I was hacking my PSP for the first time I had to find files from a not-so-trustworthy source, a random I met on an IRC channel. Knowing fully well I could end up with a $400 paperweight I went ahead anyway and, luckily enough for me, it worked. However the trend towards vendors actively seeking to brick the phones should the user try to tamper with them feels like a kick in the teeth to me. Realistically it’s my hardware and what I do with it is my business and putting barriers in place just seems like a waste of both our time.
The argument can be made that they don’t want the average user attempting to do these kinds of things with their devices. There’s some logic to that as stopping the casual hacking crowd means that a good majority of the other nefarious activities will be thwarted as well. Additionally in this day and age the originators of the hack usually make it exceptionally easy to use like the Twilight Hackfor the Nintendo Wii which merely requires loading a save game, something everyone is capable of. Still most users are bright enough to know that what they’re doing is akin to taking a chainsaw to their device, something which the manufacturer will likely not appreciate nor cover under warranty.
Coming back to the piracy issue I still feel that this comes down to the perceived¹ value that customers are placing in the products being offered. The customers who are pirating your product aren’t the kind who are just going to up and pay for it if they can’t get it for free. Really you should be looking back on yourself to see why they’re pirating it as if it’s wildly successful with the pirates but not with legit customers it’s quite possible your product is priced too high or the channels you’re offering it through are too restrictive. I’ve been researching these markets for months now and it seems no matter how hard you try to ensure no one pirates your product you only end up hurting your paying customers, driving even more of them to those dastardly corners of the Internet where they pilfer your product for free.
In my mind there’s no question that the steps taken to thwart these would be hackers is not worth the time that’s put into them. For a platform like Android I actually believe these kinds of people actually help a great deal with the whole ecosystem of the platform, ensuring that power users get what they want whilst everyday users get dedicated experts to call upon at no cost to the original company. Who knows maybe I’ll change my tune when I start trying to extract money from the markets based on these platforms but if I do feel free to point at this post and lambast me for being an idiot, as I’ll be far too detached from reality at that point 😉
¹I have a habit of re-reading my old posts when I link to them and just noticed that I praised Ubisoft for taking the right direction when trying to combat pirates. After their last DRM farce I can’t really support them anymore, but the ideas in that post remain solid (I.E. increasing value with things that can’t be pirated).
Most of the time when you’re buying the latest widget you’re buying it with a purpose already in mind for it. I know the majority of the things I’ve bought were initially bought to fill a need (like the server this web page is coming to you from, it was a testbed for all sorts of wonderful things) and then are left at that. But what about that hidden little bit of value that’s inside pretty much every tech purchase these days, can we essentially get more for money we’ve already spent?
With technology moving at such a rapid pace these days pretty much every gadget you can think of has what amounts to a small computer inside it. A great example of this would be your stock standard iPod, whilst Apple is always coy about what is actually under the hood in these devices a little searching brings up this list which shows that the majority of them run on a re-branded Samsung ARM processor. While this might not mean anything to anybody a couple intrepid hackers took it upon themselves to port the world’s most popular free operating system, Linux, onto this device. Whilst this at first might seem like an exercise in futility a quick glance at their applications page shows many homebrew applications that have been developed for this platform.
This is not the only occurrence of something being used way outside its original purpose. Way back in 2005 Sony released the Playstation Portable, an amazing piece of hardware that was basically a Playstation 1 console made portable. Thanks to my working in retail at the time I had one in my pocket the day it was released, but it wasn’t until a couple years later that I discovered the huge hacking scene that was behind this device. I then discovered that I could run emulators, media streaming programs (I was able to wow my housemates by streaming media over WiFi to my PSP), homebrew games and so much more. Sure, I was running the risk of completely destroying the device in the process but the additional value I got out of it was worth the risk. Well, it was out of warranty anyway 😉
This kind of value-add is something I now seek in pretty much all of my technology purchases. Recently I bought myself a Sony Xperia X1 mobile, but not before hitting up my favourite HTC hacking site, XDA-Developers. A quick look at their Xperia section shows all sorts of wonderful things you can do with this handset. One of the most amazing things you can do is run Google’s Android platform on this handset, something which sealed the deal on the phone instantly. It’s things like this that help me justify such huge tech purchases (that and the fact that my work paid for the mobile 😉 ).
So I encourage you, look around your room and see if there’s anything there that you wouldn’t mind tinkering with and have a look around on the Internet to see what can be done. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised.