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Sources: Sony considers music downloads for PSP

Entertainment conglomerate has spoken to label executives about offering music to PlayStation Portable owners, CNET News has learned.

Sony has spoken with some of the major recording companies about providing music for the PlayStation Portable, music industry sources told CNET News.

The sources said the talks are only preliminary and no deals have been struck. But apparently, Sony is considering offering music on the PlayStation Network, the company's nascent multiplayer gaming and digital download service. Such a move could place the PSP in direct competition with other multiuse music players, most notably the iPhone.

Spokespeople from Sony and the big recording labels declined to comment for this story.

The PSP is a nifty little handheld that plays games, video, and music, but has never fully lived up to its potential, many say. With a larger screen and superior games, the PSP could have rivaled the iPod. The PSP's development, however, was partially hobbled by not offering digital content for download.

PlayStation Portable Sony Corp.

Instead, Sony early on chose a walled-garden approach to content. To watch videos on the PSP, the company stuck with physical media and required customers to buy Universal Media Discs, the mini DVDs that play only on PSPs. UMDs never caught on, and one reason was that Sony didn't initially offer a means to watch the discs on a television. This meant PSP owners who bought a UMD movie had to pay out again for a DVD if they wanted to watch on a TV.

If you believe the rumors that have flooded the gaming sector in recent months, Sony plans to release a totally revamped PSP. Some reports say the device will feature a larger screen than the PSP 3000 and have slide-out controls--and it will no longer play UMDs. Told that Sony was interested in music for the PSP, Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities, a financial services company, applauded the idea.

"This makes total sense that Sony would try to get content for the device," Pachter said. "If Sony is smart, they would manage it the same way iTunes has and be device-agnostic. Whatever you get on a Sony site should play on an iPod as well.

"(Sony) should want that but right now you can't download a Sony PSP game to an iPod Touch because the operating system won't allow it," Pachter added. "I know I can get music from iTunes to the PSP...It's just a question, but I wonder if Sony will configure the PSP so it would be incompatible with iTunes. They could come up with their own proprietary format for music so that MP3s won't work."

As the current music format of choice is MP3, this would be bucking the popular trend in music, to be sure. The PSP currently plays unprotected MP3s and Apple and most other leading download services have removed digital rights management from their songs. Nonetheless, Pachter knows Sony's long history of trying to force proprietary formats on consumers.

Remember the Music Clip, Sony's first digital music player that ignored the public's preferance for MP3 and only played in its own ATRAC3 format? Sony's MiniDisc was supposed to replace the cassette tape but failed to catch on anywhere but Asia.

When it comes to selling music online, Sony hasn't had much luck there either. Connect was Sony's answer to iTunes, but the download service proved hopelessly buggy. Sony shut the service down in August 2007.

The good news for Sony is that CEO Howard Stringer appears willing to adopt a more open approach.

"If we had gone with open technology from the start, I think we probably would have beaten Apple," Stringer told Nikkei Electronics Asia recently. "Sony hasn't taken open technology very seriously in the past. Its Connect music download service was a failure. It was based on OpenMG, a proprietary digital rights management (DRM) technology. At the time, we thought we would make more money that way than with open technology, because we could manage the customers and their downloads.

"This approach, however, created a problem," Stringer said. "Customers couldn't download music from any Web sites except those that contracted with Sony."

This should be welcome news to PSP fans, many of whom consider the device an excellent game and video player. If Stringer is good to his word, and if Sony does offer music downloads, the company apparently won't try to imprison songs in a Sony system.