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Comment: The bell tolls for Sony's UMD

Sony is keen to remind people, at every possible juncture, that the PlayStation Portable isn't just a videogames console. Movies, music, photos and web browsing are all part of the offering as well, and every communication to emanate from the Sony mothership - be it press releases, official statements, or the huge marketing campaigns being run for the device - is pitched to ensure that we never forget that.

No amount of marketing can rescue a fundamentally bad idea, however - and for all Sony's efforts at promoting it, we have to confess to an almost complete lack of surprise when the Hollywood Reporter this week revealed that both Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures were dropping out of releasing movies on the PSP's Universal Media Disc, while 20th Century Fox, Buena Vista and even Sony Pictures are scaling back releases on the format.

If that's not the first bell of UMD's funeral peal ringing its sonorous note, then perhaps this is - retail watchers are reporting that the format is gradually losing shelf space at key locations, and giant US retail chain Wal-Mart is rumoured to be about to drop UMD entirely from its shelves. Anonymous movie executives quoted by the Hollywood Reporter pulled no punches - "sales are near zilch," one stated, while another said that "no one's even breaking even on [UMD]."

Right now, there are probably a lot of people within Sony trying to work out exactly what went wrong - but from the perspective of consumers and the wider industry, it's easy to pinpoint what the problem with UMD is. It's a bad answer to a question nobody was asking; a poorly conceived format that nobody wanted, but which Sony foisted on the market without giving the remotest thought to how it would fit with consumers' existing pattern of media usage and consumption. Under-specified, over-priced and far too late to market to be of any real interest, it's the movie format that nobody wanted.

Comparisons will inevitably be made with MiniDisc, but those comparisons are unfair - unfair to MD, that is. While the MD format never had legs among consumers in the west, the platform still has widespread acceptance as a recording format and is used extensively by audio professionals and amateurs alike; not the market Sony might have dreamed of, but a worthy niche. MD's hopes of being picked up as a de facto standard for consumer audio were largely destroyed by the fact that it didn't offer big enough benefits over CD for the average consumer, while early adopters were keenly aware of MP3 players being on the horizon. Squeezed between these two juggernauts, MD popped out of existence in the consumer space.

UMD, unlike MD, has no useful application outside of being a format for games and movies on the PSP; when the movies side of that application disappears, UMD will simply be a proprietary game format, much like GameCube discs are. Like MD, it too is failing to catch the interest of the early adopter market because of the existence of the far superior digital formats around the corner - even now, anyone with a little technical savvy can convert their own DVDs or other movies into a format that can be played off a PSP Memory Stick - but on the other side, there's no established format it's fighting against. What it's fighting against on a mass-market level is pure apathy.

It's certainly true that nobody asked for or wanted a disc format for portable movie playback. Why on earth would anyone want to pay the price of a DVD just in order to get a lower resolution version of the movie that can only be played back on one device, when you could just buy the DVD and rip the content to watch on the PSP as well as owning a full-scale version to watch at home? However, in the mass market, there's still a big question over whether anyone has even asked for any kind of player for watching movies on the go. Portable video is not the same as portable audio; unlike the passive experience of listening to audio on the move, video is an invasive, attention-grabbing activity which simply doesn't fit into the lifestyles of very many people. Where it does fit, it's in the form of bite sized chunks - TV episodes, news broadcasts, even sports highlights or music videos - which are far better delivered digitally over a network than on a static disc.

Of course, Sony has a solution for that too, and we expect that digital delivery of video content to PSP is going to be a big market in future; the platform isn't about to stop being a video player just because UMD dies a death. However, millions of pounds have been pumped into bringing UMD to life, and then keeping it on life support - and both Sony and its partners need to think hard about the kind of outdated, foolish thinking that has brought us to this juncture. The crux, we suspect, is the comment we made above about buying a DVD and ripping it to a digital format to use on your PSP; an action which seems perfectly natural and normal to the majority of consumers, just like copying a CD to tape to listen to in your car used to be, but which fills media companies with horror.

These companies don't believe that consumers should be allowed to do as they please with the media they buy. In their world, if you buy a DVD, you should then have to buy the same film again on UMD to watch it on your PSP; buy it again from the iTunes store to watch it on your iPod video, or from your carrier to watch a clip of it on your mobile phone. You should pay again for the HD-DVD or Blu-Ray disc to see a high definition version. If you buy a music CD, the music company dreams of you having to buy it again to listen to it on your portable player, and again once more to have a sample from it on your mobile phone. After all, most people had to replace their tapes when CD arrived, or their VHS cassettes when DVD came along; why should it be any different now, they'll reason.

The reason it's different now - the reason that the media companies are barking up the wrong tree entirely, and that Sony sank millions into a video format that floats with all the grace of a breeze block - is that when these companies pressed CDs and DVDs into the hands of consumers, they were giving us digital formats, replacing the analogue formats of old. Digital data doesn't wear out or stretch; it's endlessly flexible, and can be repurposed to play in a host of different formats and devices. We don't need UMDs, because we can make portable movies from our DVDs; and those we don't own on DVD, we'd rather acquire online instead of paying full price for a single-purpose medium (I say "acquire" deliberately, because while I'd love to say "buy", the movie studios haven't actually come up with a convincing way for people to pay for movies online yet, so most people will continue to acquire them in other ways, just as they did with MP3s).

So, the death of UMD is just another crossroads what promises to be a tedious and drawn-out war over consumer rights in the digital age, but it's a clear message to the studios and the hardware manufacturers, at least. Consumers don't want your single-purpose, proprietary formats; they don't want to be sold the same product over and over again in different boxes; and they sure as hell don't want the media companies to try and dictate what the market will look like. Consumer demand will dictate that; it always has, and as Sony has found out very expensively over the last year, it always will. The question now is whether the Japanese giant can avoid exactly the same pitfalls with Blu-Ray - and, perhaps, whether the ferocious battle between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray is going to turn out to be a pointless one for both sides, as consumers increasingly look away from physical disc formats for their media, leaving the dinosaurs to duke it out over a market nobody really cares about any more.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.