November 1, 2005

The Sony Tax

Filed under: digital — mhoye @ 2:07 pm

Just recently, I was asked about an IT colloquialism. The phrase “Sony tax” came up, and I was asked what that meant. I told them what I will now tell you, which will be leading up to something.

The Sony Tax is twofold: first, Sony’s products are typically branded “lifestyle products”, which means they come in a smaller form factor and/or a shinier case. This is not to disparage the quality of the product, but that lifestyle-product bit, well, you’ll be paying a fifty to one hundred percent premium for that shiny, and often more. Compare the price of a Vaio laptop to, say, any comparable laptop from any other vendor, and you’ll get the idea.

The second and more pernicious part of the Sony Tax are the custom, only-from-Sony, only-on-Sony components that the Sony corporation seems to love so very, very much. This part of the Sony Tax consists mainly of an ingrained desire that every technology they develop eventually turn into Betamax. That is to say, a technology that is demonstrably superior, and yet completely fails in the marketplace, making replacement or repair either difficult, extremely expensive, or outright impossible.

The list of products that Sony has frogmarched into the Betamax abyss is not small. In addition to Betamax, see ATRAC encoding, the S-Link protocol. minidisc players, their “memory sticks” and, certainly, others I’ve overlooked. They’re trying their very best to do the same thing to their Playstation Portables right now, and all signs point to their doing the same thing with their unbelievably-awesome electronic-paper-based Librie as well, and predictably my Sony-Ericsson t610 cellphone has completely custom connectors that I can only use with their sold-at-a-premium cables.

The pattern has repeated itself over and over, and goes like this:

  1. Sony creates a technology that is demonstrably superior to everything else in its niche.
  2. Sony decides to license it at prohibitive rates, or just not to license it at all, or that you won’t be allowed to use it with software or other tech that isn’t Sony-blessed.
  3. The market comes along and says, hey, awesome, we need that. Or rather, we need something that does that, and that we can plug into our other toys. ‘Cause we’ve paid a bucket of money for the toys we already have.
  4. Somebody else builds something way, way cheaper to license, that does pretty much what Sony’s thing did, maybe not as well, but that way more people can buy.
  5. Lots of the people who make things license that second technology and start making things. Competition among people who aren’t Sony is fierce, and prices drop. First a little, then a lot.
  6. Everyone who isn’t Sony wins. Sony sulks, moves on to invent something new, and the circle of life continues.

For a while there, it looked like Sony might come to their senses, with one of their executives acknowledging in a public interview that yeah, we dropped the ball not supporting MP3 for as long as we did, and that pretty much cost us the North American walkman market. But no, it is not so. Just this week, there is a third candidate in the Sony Tax Pantheon, and this one is genuinely menacing. Now, if you put a Sony CD into your computer, odds are good that your computer will never work properly again.

UPDATE: I may not have emphasized this enough, so let me say this again: if you put a CD that is described as “copy-protected” or otherwise doesn’t say explicitly that it is a standard, Redbook-compliant CDDA disc, denoted by the logo at the other end of that link, putting it into your computer may screw up that computer in ways that may be very difficult or impossible to unfuck. In fact, other infection and attack vectors can piggyback on the software Sony installs, and make your life that much worse. The fact that what Sony has done here is quite possibly criminal won’t be much consolation. Fuck you, Sony.

Seriously, if those guys got their shit together, they’d be running the world right now. As it stands, the best advice you can get about Sony products is that you don’t buy them.

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