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Memory Stick.

Remember that old flash memory format developed by Sony? Well, it’s still in use in some form (Memory Stick Duo) so I guess I can’t say it’s “old” but it certainly has a history. Come to think of it, there are a number of consumer products/tech that Sony developed and championed. Some of these have enjoyed such widespread popularity that their names have become eponymous with the class of products they represent while others have disappeared like dust in the wind (but remain on the tip of our minds to this day).

Our first example: the Walkman. This little device set off a cultural and musical explosion that still resonates to this day. It was the first affordable, reliably produced, and practical way to tote around your own tunes. It became so popular that people developed this habit of calling any portable cassette player a “walkman” even though they were not actually manufactured by Sony (much like how we refer to a photocopy as a ‘xerox’ or an adhesive bandage as a ‘band-aid’).

I had an actual, branded “Walkman” growing up. Those were good times.

This example is appropriate enough since it was recently announced that Sony would discontinue production of these little boxes, meaning (if I can dig up that old Walkman) I might have something of a relic on my hands.

In the early 90s Sony tried to ignite another revolution in portable music players with their MiniDisc (MD) format and player. A MD was basically a shrunken CD yet the MD retained comparable storage capacity thanks to a lossy form of audio compression developed by Sony. You also couldn’t directly handle the disc since it was enclosed in a plastic box (you’ll be familiar with those if you ever referred to a “CD drive” in a computer as an “optical disc drive”).

While popular in Japan, the MD didn’t do so well State-side. The music industry didn’t jump on the MD bandwagon and the price of the tech was just too high compared to MDs contemporary competition. This is why your dad never thought about swapping out the dual cassette deck with an MD deck in the family stereo rack.

The growing affordability of CD-R technology in the mid-90s and emergency of MP3 players in the late 90s sealed MD’s fate.

The most tragic part is that you knew Sony was looking to change the way people carried music with them because they even christened the MD with the “Walkman” brand.

The last example I have for you is Blu-Ray.  Blu-Ray aimed at being the next generation home media format for high definition video. DVDs worked well enough but it’s not possible to pack all the data necessary to produce a high-definition picture, so Sony (along with other consumer electronics partner companies) developed the Blu-Ray technology. Blu-Ray refers not just to the disc media but also the playback and recording tech as Blu-Ray discs will not play in anything other than a Blu-Ray player.

While DVDs can hold 4.7 GB of data in a single layer, one single-layer BR-D can store 25 GB. Consider a dual-layer BR-D and the math is simple. This allows not only for high-def video but also made room for advances in audio recording/mastering technology which can be experienced under the popular brands TrueHD (Dolby) and DTS-HD (DTS), both lossless audio compression technologies.

Blu-Ray faced competition, however, in the form of HD DVD. The HD DVD format was developed by Toshiba (and other partner companies) and vied for market dominance in the mid 2000s. Early Blu-Ray technology was so buggy that even buying a Blu-Ray player became a gamble because it either worked, worked with some of your Blu-Ray titles, or didn’t work at an acceptable level at all, even from names like Sony and Samsung.

HD DVD had a head-start in the high-def video arena and was even endorsed by the DVD technology consortium (hence the name HD DVD). What’s more is that these two technologies were completely non-interoperable meaning you couldn’t play an HD DVD in a Blu-Ray player nor a BR-D in an HD DVD player.

It seemed like this was all going to be another repeat of the Sony’s MD campaign but Sony was able to swing consumers to its corner by featuring BR-D playback on their PlayStation 3 video game console (at it’s debut the PS3 was among the most affordable Blu-Ray players you could find, anywhere) and integrating Blu-Ray technology into their popular line of handheld video recorders. Their weight in the music/movie industry, I’m sure, also played a huge role as their adoption rate eventually surpassed HD DVD to the point that Toshiba called it quits on HD DVD in 2007/8.

The decision to develop and stick with your own, proprietary tech might appear to be a stubborn and hugely obnoxious thing to do but it’s fantastic when said technology gains a foothold in the greater consumer electronics realm and becomes a standard. I’ll admit that even I rolled my eyes at Memory Stick, MiniDisc, and even Blu-Ray, but you can’t fault Sony for trying to innovate.

Now if only we can get Apple to implement a more ubiquitous interconnect for their iDevices…

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