After seeing some new developments in the gaming world, I am not having much fun. We are about to repeat some of the same things we went through during the dawn of the PC era in the mid 1980s. Do you remember way back when with copy protected software, and incompatible disk media formats? Do the names Ashton Tate and DEC's Rainbow mean anything to you?
Gaming company executives need to study up on these and other spectacular failures of the PC era, or they will suffer similar consequences. Sony's PSP and the new game sampler DVD from Sapphire Technology are just examples of where they are going astray.
When the Apple II first came out, one of its biggest innovations was a 5.25 inch floppy drive. Before this, you had very cumbersome mechanisms for loading software, including using cassette tapes that took forever to get your software loaded. The 5.25 floppy quickly became a standard fixture on many PCs, and was so ubiquitous that it was one of the last things to go from that era.
IBM and Microsoft made the floppy a standard format, and it was adopted by most of the PC manufacturers, except for one notable example: DEC. Back then, DEC was a proud company with its own computing history in minicomputers, but not in PCs. Their engineers thought of a better way to store more data on their floppies. Trouble was these were incompatible with the IBM standard. These better floppies were featured on their version of the PC, called the Rainbow. You could read and write IBM-formatted floppies in the Rainbow, but not the reverse. And while we are talking about spectacular failures, I should point out that the Rainbow had two floppies that were stacked on top of each other, but you inserted one upside down from the other. That sort of usability disaster was just the icing on cake.
The Rainbow had a lot of other innovations, including specialized graphics hardware, a special monitor cable (a precursor to some of the things that Jobs' Next PC tried out too), dual CPUS to run multiple operating systems, and special dedicated keys on its keyboard. None of these ideas took hold and the Rainbow quickly became a dinosaur.
What does this have to do with today? Well, Sony's new data format for the PSP uses media called Universal Media Disc. The oddly-shaped disc is smaller that the standard 5.25 CD/DVD media that we have all grown accustomed to, and unlike the smaller CD-Rs that Sony has in some of its cameras, it won't fit in any existing CD/DVD drive. But this is nothing new for Sony, who keeps trying to move the world towards its own media formats: the Memory Stick, its ATRAC format for music files, and now UMD. Sorry guys, this is broken and while there is a lot to like about the PSP, having to buy all new media to play games and watch videos isn't one of them. Rainbow alert!
Trymedia.com has teamed with Sapphire Technology graphics cards to produce a series of special "sampler" DVDs with various game software titles on it. Next month, these DVDs will be included in the box with the card, making it easy to try out the games. Or so in theory. Using the Sapphire Select system, the full version of each game can be played for exactly one hour without purchasing it. If you decide you like the game and want to buy it, Trymedia's copy protection scheme, called ActiveMark, will allow you to enter your credit card information and purchase the game and activate it for your use.
As my staff at Tom's Hardware found out when they tried out this system, this procedure has its faults. You can't play the game on any computer other than the one you just activated it on. If you have mods or updates, you have to wait for the ActiveMark system to deliver them to you ö if you try to do it yourself by downloading them from the game's Web site, you will break the copy protection and the game won't load. Now, while the system isn't yet available, if this goes as planned, it is a terrible idea.
Let's go back in time to the mid 1980s, please, and learn from history. Back then, we had the major software publishers of the day, including Lotus and Ashton-Tate, who tried to foist their version of copy protection on the unsuspecting computing public. As quickly as they developed schemes, the public found ways around them. (And this was before the Internet and global email, too.) I had my "unlock" disks that I carried with me in my role as corporate IT support. Invariably some user in distress had deleted his or her copy of the software and couldn't reinstall it. One memorable visit was over the weekend to our CIO (we didn't call him the CIO then but that is what he was) because his version of Lotus Symphony wasn't working. My unlock disks came in very handy, and I knew that this copy protection was bad news then. It is bad now with games, and needs to be nipped in the bud.
It's too bad that Sony and Sapphire can't learn from these mistakes of the PC past. But maybe if enough consumers steer clear of these products, they will get the message.
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