This is a perfect example of some of the foolishness which has done so much to promote piracy in this industry and others. For years, customers who would happily pay for music ended up downloading illegal MP3s because, for customers who were using digital music players, the experience of downloading from a pirate site was better and more convenient than the experience of buying from a legitimate retailer. On the PSP, if you want good battery life, fast loading and the ability to carry around several games without a big case of discs, you have to crack your console and pirate the software.
This isn't the sole reason for piracy on the system, nor is it a defence of piracy. There will always be those who wish to simply get things for free. However, that's no excuse for allowing a situation where pirates get a better experience than your paying customers. The piracy issue highlights a set of problems which Sony needs to solve if the PSP is to prosper as a platform - both from a consumer and a publisher perspective.
That's why the noises being made about the next PSP are so encouraging. Removing the UMD drive will kill backwards compatibility, which is problematic (especially since a system for transferring your existing UMDs legally onto the new system seems highly unlikely) but far less so than retaining the drive hardware would be. The addition of high-capacity memory stick slots and, presumably, a chunk of internal flash memory is a much better solution - one which, however, will need to be backed up with an excellent range of software on PSN on day one. If Sony can't get reasonable pricing (and that means matching the discounted retail prices of old PSP titles and resisting the urge to charge an unjustified "digital premium") and a big range of software out there, the new device will run into problems very early on.
Changing the form factor to make the PSP more pocket-friendly will increase its appeal as a media platform. Talk of a sliding screen which conceals the game controls makes sense, especially if it's coupled with media controls on the unit body itself. From a media perspective, too, Sony needs to think long and hard about the store and software side of its offering. PlayStation Network has been a success in a way which predecessors like the Connect Music Store never managed - now the lessons of PSN must be applied logically to music and movie downloads. A close eye on Apple's success with the iTunes Store wouldn't go amiss, either.
Other changes, too, would make sense - but it remains to be seen just how radical Sony is prepared to be with the new PSP. The original model acquired a variety of peripherals including a camera, a microphone and a GPS receiver. It's hard to imagine any sensible excuse for not integrating those peripherals into the hardware of the new model, given how cheap such technology is, and how much potential they would unlock for games, media and networking functions alike.
One thing seems almost certain - the new PSP, assuming it emerges, will be the talk of E3. As Sony's first hardware launch since the controversial, delayed and generally disappointing appearance of the PS3, the company's reputation is on the line here - and it's not just SCE that needs to be sweating. Sony's entire ability to command market share in portable media is in question. The firm which invented the Walkman needs to answer that question comprehensively if it's to stay relevant in this sector.
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