Sony's missteps through the years

The PSN hacking that left millions of customers' personal data exposed isn't the first time Sony has royally screwed up. CNET looks back on some of the company's most memorable mistakes of the past few years.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
5 min read

Sony is a venerable name in the world of consumer electronics. This is, after all, the company that invented the CD, the Walkman, the Blu-ray Disc, and has made a deep impression on the tech world and mainstream culture.

That's why when Sony screws up--something a company is apt to do every now and again while in business more than half a century--it's notable. Sometimes it's a singular event, other times it's a product with high expectations that ends up being a dud.

The latest mistake, the hacking of PlayStation Network customers' personal data, is a big one, though when put in the context of past events, it may not actually be the worst thing ever to befall Sony.

In light of the latest misstep this week, we've rounded up some of Sony's most memorable blunders. Did we forget any? Leave them in the comments below.

PSN Hack
Anyone can be the target of a malicious hacking on the Web, but when it's a company like Sony, and 75 million names, e-mail addresses, birth dates, and addresses are at stake, it's big news.

Sony still hasn't said who hacked into its PlayStation Network and got access to the personal data of its customers, but it has said it's fairly sure credit card numbers were not exposed.

Sony's PS3 Sony

Still, what's angered most customers has been the lack of communication from the company--it took Sony a week after finding out about the security breach to inform customers--and the revelation that names, e-mail addresses, birth dates, and passwords were not encrypted.

Sony has still not said how it plans to compensate customers. At least one has an idea: an Alabama man is suing the company for free credit reporting services, as well as monetary damages for having his personal information illegally accessed.

Rootkit Scandal 
Sony got into trouble in November 2005 when it was discovered that the company used a rootkit on music CDs to limit the number of copies a person could make of the CD and to prevent making MP3 files from the music.

The rootkit was a bad idea for several reasons. It hid from the user the fact that Sony had placed this copy protection, it sent information about the CD being played to Sony, and it had a loophole that a hacker could use to hide a virus that could take over someone's computer. There was also no easy way to uninstall it.

As far as betraying customers' trust goes, that's pretty high up there on the list of things that are hard to recover from.

Faulty Lithium-ion batteries
Just a year later, another controversy exploded. Literally. Though Sony is a relatively small player in selling PCs, it does a big business selling laptop batteries to basically all of its competitors.

In the summer of 2006, reports of laptops smoking or bursting into flames began to crop up. Turns out a pretty big batch of Sony's lithium-ion batteries, which all the flaming laptops were using, were defective. The problem came to light when Dell was forced to recall more than 4 million laptop batteries made by Sony. Eventually Apple issued a recall for 1.8 million notebook batteries, as did Gateway (now part of Acer), Toshiba, Lenovo, Fujitsu, and obviously Sony itself.

Original PS3: late and expensive
Though it's a certifiable hit today--obviously the PSN story wouldn't have quite the impact if there weren't legions of customers--you might recall that when the PlayStation 3 finally hit store shelves, it did so under a cloud. It was delivered months later than originally planned, and by the time it was available, a cheaper Xbox had beaten it to market.

At $599, the 60GB PS3 was expensive--and Sony was said to be losing a lot of money on the console. Plenty of people lined up for it, but at first it was to cash in on the limited availability and resell the gadgets at insane prices. Many first customers who were avid PlayStation gamers were disappointed by they saw as a dearth of compelling PS3 titles.

Failure to Connect
Sony's first attempt to build an iTunes competitor, known as Connect, did not go well. Begun in 2005, the 14-month-long project was, as one Sony insider put it, an unmitigated disaster. Because no one was happy with the final product, it was never set for official release in the U.S.--only Europe and Japan. Connect also highlighted the deep disconnects between the different silos within the company--a problem Chairman and CEO Sir Howard Stringer is still working to rectify.

Addiction to proprietary formats
This one is an ongoing problem for Sony: the company's insistence on using proprietary formats in its electronics. Sony is obviously not the only company to use proprietary technology, but Sony has been around for so long that the pattern has become apparent.

For example, when it originally debuted, the PlayStation Portable came with a new format for portable games: UMD (universal media disc). Not a terrible move. But Sony stumbled when it then tried to push UMD as a new way of buying movie content. While UMD had enough storage to hold a video game, it wasn't big enough to compete with the amount of content a studio could squeeze onto a DVD. You also couldn't write to the disc to copy your own content onto it, and there was no way of outputting the video to a television.

Eventually most movie studios declined to re-up their participation in UMD, and when the updated PSP was released in 2009 Sony ditched the format altogether.

Other proprietary formats, like Memory Stick (Sony's version of an SD card), seemed like a way to boost one Sony business (storage) with another (requiring it for use in cameras or portable devices). It didn't make nearly the headway that SD cards did. Sony finally threw up the white flag on that battle at CES 2010 when it announced its cameras would accept SD cards in addition to Memory Stick, and even that Sony would manufacture SD cards itself.

The Wi-Fi enabled DSC-G3 camera Sarah Tew/CNET

For more format losers, see also HiFD ("the floppy disk of the 21st century!") and Blu-spec CD (what is that, you ask? Exactly).

Great specs, lousy implementation: the Wi-Fi camera
The Cybershot DSC-G3 Wi-Fi camera was the centerpiece of Sony's camera marketing bonanza at CES 2009, but it's largely now considered a dud. True, we here at CNET awarded the 10-megapixel, 4X zoom G3 the Best of CES award in the camera category that year, based on its impressive specs and Wi-Fi access that purported to allow easy wireless uploading of photos directly to the Web.

But the $499 price point, combined with the lack of 3G and only Wi-Fi, meant there wasn't always a guarantee you'd be within range of a connection that would let you upload your pictures. Plus the actual experience of using the Wi-Fi feature was a disappointment. So while it was a product packed with arguably great specs, it hasn't by any means caught on with customers.

This post was corrected at 2:40 p.m. to note the original PS3's compatibility with PS1 and PS2.