The five most pointless Sony products ever

We're huge fans of much of Sony's work. But it's made more than its fair share of absolute stinkers, so gather round.

Nate Lanxon
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We're huge fans of much of Sony's work. MiniDisc? Marvelous. PlayStation? Paradigm-shifting. Bravia? Boodiful. But it's made more than its fair share of absolute stinkers, so gather round. Crave UK has put together a list of the most pointless products in the company's decades-old portfolio. Starting with...

HiFD drives
"HiFD is destined to become the floppy disk of the 21st century," claimed Sony's Takayasu Hirano in 1998. And he was absolutely correct: in the 21st century, they're equally defunct.

Sony pioneered the 3.5-inch floppy drive in the 1980s. But by the late '90s, Sony needed a successor to its dying 1.4MB baby. It had become the magnetic equivalent of the once adorable son who subsequently tried to make a living playing the spoons when everyone else was buying drum kits.

Sony's answer was HiFD--the high-capacity successor to the 3.5-inch floppy. Announced in 1997 and first shipped in 1998, the first 150MB HiFDs were compatible only with Sony's HiFD drives. The problem was, the drives themselves suffered from technical hardware problems and Sony suspended shipments, although units were never recalled.

Fast-forward to 1999 and HiFD was re-released in an improved 200MB version. Their accompanying drives remained backward-compatible with the original 3.5-inch floppy disks, and this time functioned properly. They offered maximum read/write speeds of 3.6MBps and 1.2MBps respectively.

But it failed to make the format anything more than irrelevent--like Katy Perry, only less demented--as both Iomega's Zip drives and the CD-R had scored enough popularity points to steal Sony's limelight.

Ultimately, it was CD-R that triumphed, and DVD-R that continued the optical storage trend into the 21st century.

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Movies on UMD

From flopped floppy disks to other discs that flopped. Sony's almost erotic fascination with creating proprietary media formats is excruciating. Like an abscess in the face. And the PSP's MiniDisc-esque Universal Media Disc is just one of many questionable strings on Sony's haggard proprietary bow.

In fairness, as a games console cartridge, we can forgive it--it's robust, and has a large 1.8GB capacity, but a small 64mm (2.5-inch) diameter. But when Sony tried to introduce the heavily DRMed format as a medium for movies, we face-palmed, wept, and lost the will even to breathe in and out. For weeks our only sustenance came from drinking our own tears.

It may have been technically credible, but its capacity limited it from containing the wealth of bonus features DVD could handle. The PSP couldn't output to a TV set, plus there was no way to put your own video on a movie UMD--and they were expensive. Yet there was Sony, pushing it on to store shelves, fiercely marketing it as a viable portable media format, persuading people to invest good money in a ridiculous product doomed to failure. There were no other ways to watch these movies but on a PSP, and this was its Achilles heel.

Eventually it was canned, thanks to lackluster consumer demand, and shops sold off excess stock on the cheap.

The only good news? Rumor has it Sony will ditch UMD altogether in the next PSP. Oh well.

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Memory Stick Micro (M2)

Perhaps the most annoying of all Sony's proprietary concoctions. SanDisk's miniSD was announced in 2003 and was designed "to meet the needs of the mobile phone market." Then in March 2005, SanDisk announced the slightly smaller microSD format--a card designed "specifically for the wireless communications market".

Fine. But six months later, it was announced that Sony had worked with SanDisk to produce the Memory Stick Micro--a card "designed to meet the growing storage needs of highly compact, multifunctional mobile phones". The world groaned. Only a few months earlier, Richard Whiteley had died. And now this. Humanity had reached new and excruciating lows.

microSD and Memory Stick Micro cards are extremely similar in size and both were designed for use in phones. The most significant difference is that Memory Stick Micro cards support Sony's MagicGate DRM system--something the average user enjoys as much as being circumcised.

To consumers this was just another irritation, another explanation to sit through at the electronics store, another worry when switching from brand to brand.

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Blu-spec CD

Sony introduced the Blu-spec CD format earlier this year. It promised better sound by using the technology used to author Blu-ray discs to master standard CDs. These blue, rather than red, lasers are far more accurate at burning pits in the readable surface of CDs. The result is fewer read errors, therefore better sound.

"That sounds good though," you say. "I don't get what's pointless," you continue. The thing is, Blu-spec CDs use the same 16-bit, 44KHz audio encoding as traditional CDs, so you're not gaining additional sonic data. It's not Blu-ray audio--just standard CDs made in a different way, released as a new format.

Really, Blu-spec is just glorified error-correction technology--something the CD format already incorporates in the form of Cross-Interleaved Reed-Solomon Coding, and something many software-based CD ripping tools use to great effect.

Blu-spec, then, is Sony's proprietary answer to an industry-wide problem that causes few people any issues. So what's the point? Really?

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XCP rootkit

Pretend, for a second, that you bought a horse. Doesn't matter what kind--just a standard horse. Then, imagine finding out the breeder had purposely given it a disease that prevented it from having baby horses. And as a bonus, it left the horse open to malicious software attacks from remote computers.

Yeah, you'd be confused. As if an analogy had broken down along the way. But that's pretty much what happened in 2005, when Sony BMG put Extended Copy Protection (XCP) and MediaMax CD-3 software--the Black Death incarnation of DRM--on a total of 102 CD titles.

Users who played these CDs on their computers unknowingly had malware known as a "rootkit" installed on their machines. Rootkits can avoid detection by antivirus and security programs by hiding deep within a computer's operating system. This rootkit left PCs on which it was installed at the mercy of hackers.

Although the copy protection was not strictly a Sony product (XCP was developed by a British company called First 4 Internet, now known as Fortium Technologies), the CDs that included it were. And for that reason we just can't help but consider this one of the most pointless--and infuriating--Sony products.

Incidentally, Sony claimed "there were no security risks associated with the antipiracy technology," but offered to exchange CDs containing the software for versions without. Thanks a bunch.

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