Friday, March 04, 2011

The PSP And The Problem With Gadgets

I generally try to avoid writing about anything overly geeky on this blog, but Sony's PSP holds a special place in my heart because it was a gizmo that almost literally overflowed with potential, most of which was wasted by terrible design.

I've worked in the business and design world before, and if there's a word to describe most managers' perspective on designers it's "expendable." They usually inflate their own position in the hierarchy of responsibility (idea men), and reduce those who actually do the work (grunts). That design is something that anyone can do is, one would think in this Apple-fied world, is a perspective that would have quickly gotten the boot. One would be wrong. It's here and it seems here to stay.

I assume that this is because of how most executives got to their positions, namely good-ol'-boys clubs and connections formed at business school. You're encouraged to believe that you have achieved this position by some natural state, as opposed to getting there by old-fashioned elbow grease.

Regardless of why this situation is, it is, and that is all that must be addressed. Sony is one of the best examples of great engineering and horrendous design on the modern market. Everything Sony makes is wonderfully engineered, efficient, and well-made. The software, on the other hand, is usually a train-wreck, the features are poorly implemented, and actually getting the products to do what you want requires the same PhD that the engineer had.

The PSP was wonderfully engineered. It was beautiful to hold, built well, looked gorgeous, was insanely powerful, and was loaded with features. Unfortunately, it was also a grand example of a design mandate that I hold sacred: if you aren't going to implement something 100%, don't implement it at all.

The PSP had an MP3 player... that sucked. A video player... that sucked. A web-browser... that was actually OK. The LocationFree player, which was just atrocious. It's gaming feature was good, and the screen was excellent, but that was the ONLY thing it did well. And instead of dumping everything they had into expanding the gaming experience, they spent money on more useless features and on an endless cold war with hackers who kept cracking the machine's software open to futz around.

That is the reason why the Nintendo DS whomped the PSP in the market. Nintendo concentrated on the gaming experience and ways to entertain that were novel and well-implemented. If a feature didn't fit into that paradigm, it wasn't included. It was a very Apple perspective to take. Granted, Nintendo also continues to tilt against the windmill of user-modified systems.

Sony is again doing the same thing with upcoming PSP2 (known as the NGP). Instead of pushing something new and novel, they're simply upping the specs of the PSP. They have the touch surface on the back of the system, which is cool, but nothing compared to the novelty of the 3DS. I have doubts about the 3DS as well, but whereas Nintendo's absolute success with the DS and DSLite has earned them the benefit of the doubt, Sony's complete design failure with the PSP hasn't. I wouldn't be surprised to see another poorly designed interface, crippled with restrictions.

While on that subject, Sony also embodies, better than any other company, the issues with trying to release a good product while being restricted by other parts of the company. The perfect MP3 player is one that rips and stores music by itself, can browse Torrents to download music and video, plays all extensions, only has features that work perfectly, and can be accessed without some proprietary software but includes it for ease of use. As you can imagine, all of these features are incompatible with an overarching corporate philosophy of proprietary integration and anti-piracy.

And it is that philosophy that Apple has unfortunately pioneered. You do not buy ONE Apple product. You buy into Apple's entire system when you buy anything from them. They have a giant, vertically integrated system (granted, with every step wonderfully designed and user-friendly), that locks you in, locks everyone else out, and squeezes money from you every chance it can. It is an enormously profitable machine, evinced by Apple earning more than Microsoft, even though it holds relatively small percentages of most markets.

Understandably, and sadly, every company and its brother is drooling at the prospect of creating its own closed system to drain consumers of cash. As such, product features that are completely logical never see the light of day because they would punch a hole in that closed system. Too bad all of those companies seem to forget that Apple has spent decades building a loyal user base, and billions of dollars on excellent software.

But why bother with all of that? That's just design work that anyone can do. It's the idea that was difficult.

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