Friday, April 14, 2006

Where are the UMDs?

That's right everyone- it's your favorite Uncle J.C. Loophole guesting again here at the phenom known as Cinerati. No - not the "dirty old man" Uncle, but the "fun" Uncle who loves to bring Tootsie Pops when he comes for a visit. As you know Wolf Flywheel and I usually sit at the helm of the USS Shelf 1, and recently we have been reviewing and talking about Easter themed films and animated specials. In going through my DVD for the review, I came across my UMD copy of Spider-Man 2. I took it out for a brief spin and remembered how unique and enjoyable it was to watch the movie on the go.

UMD- what is a UMD? I'm sure the regulars know- but for the benefit of anyone who is unawares- UMD stands for Universal Media Discs. If you own a PSP, you know all about those UMDs. In fact, you may have received Spider-Man 2 in your PSP package if you purchased it when it debuted in March of 2005. The UMDs are use for game content, as well as for movies and music. I have actually purchased several in the past when they were affordable. I actually like the portability and the PSP actually packs a good movie experience with the headphones on.
So what's all the fuss about the UMD? Well, it seems as if several studios, such as Warner Brothers and Paramount, are either scaling back their UMD releases or ending them altogether. PC Magazine reports:

"Disappointing sales have slowed the flow of movies on the proprietary Universal Media Disc to a mere trickle. At least two major studios have completely stopped releasing movies on UMD, while others are either toying with the idea or drastically cutting back.
And retailers also are cutting the amount of shelf space they've been devoting to UMD movies, amid talk that Wal-Mart is about to dump the category entirely."

Disappointing sales? Yeah, I'd say so. Just asking several local retailers gives the picture that not only do the things sit and rot on the shelf, but they can't push the PSP as the all-in-one media device that Sony intended it to be. Most people view it as a just a portable gaming device. Even among gamers and local gaming stores, where PSPs are purchased with more frequency, the disc that gets slapped on the counter with it is a game. I myself have several games- and the PSP is a great portable gaming console. I also think it is sold short as the all-in-one media device; the movies and music - and the fact that it also features memory stick that can store said media- and the fact that it can store digit pictures and browse the web make it an attractive gadget. So what has happened?

Further in the report, one of the studio's Home Entertain president states flatly that no one is watching movies on the PSP- "It's a game player, period." That's the attitude of most retailers and industry watchers -but I don't believe that is the real reason. The real reason perhaps lies within the device itself. Remember when I mentioned the memory stick? Well, a lot of people are using software to copy movies from their PC to the memory stick and then watching the movie on the go on their PSP. Think about it- UMDs are generally more expensive than a DVD. In fact it was cheaper to buy the fully loaded Hellboy special edition than it was to buy the UMD version. Couple that with the fact that it would be possible to copy the film to a Memory stick & that the UMD has smaller disc space (which means little or no extra features) -makes choosing the DVD over the UMD a no-brainer. The problem for the studios and retailers is that no one is purchasing the product, but that doesn't translate to "No one is watching movies on the PSP." The real problem revolves around 4 things- 1. Price 2. Accessibility and 3. Variety 4. Image

1.Price: I think I pretty well illustrated the problem of price in the Hellboy example. To further complicate things, it is a new format- and new formats are always more expensive before they hit market saturation and expansion.

2. Accessibility: The UMD movie can only be watched on a PSP. It is a narrow market product. DVD's spent a couple of years building up market base before DVD players became as cheap or cheaper than VCRs- but DVDs also are playable on home PCs and portable DVD players. Who knows? In time and given market base UMD slots might have appeared on DVD players or on your media card section of your PC. It seems rather unlikely, but it appears that Sony is exploring their options in an effort to revive the format. Next-gen application seems to be on the way to allow for UMD playback on televisions. Is it a little too late? If studios are scaling back or eliminating their new release UMDs- will they bring them back if the TV playback feature becomes reality? It will be depend on market saturation and the consumer's willingness to adapt to the format independently of the PSP. Time will tell. With the studios getting set for the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray format war coming soon- it will be an interesting turn of events.

3. Variety: If you looked at the movies available for UMD- the list looks like its geared toward the 18-35 yr old male demographic. It is intentional skewed that way, because that was key demographic that the PSP was advertised to and the main demographic that owns them . Therefore lots of action, horror, comedy and some anime. Few (OK as far as I can tell, none) classics, romantic movies, older animation, etc, etc, etc. The major studios jumped on the bandwagon like ants at a picnic- because this was the demographic that raked it in for them, or so they thought. But realistically, when you've plunked down around $200 for the PSP and another $40-50 for at least one game, what 18-35 year old male or female has the cash flow to shell out $20 to $30 for a bare bones movie disc, that some already have purchased on DVD. The lack of variety plus the fact that the studios did too much, too soon is a devastating blow to the format.

4. Here is another problem. Sony intended the device to be a media onestop- but when it released it in the US, it was pushed as a portable gaming console that could also play movies. It was a way for Sony to enter into the handheld gaming market, of which they seek to own a sizable chunk, with the flexibility to option into other areas later. It's a great handheld gaming device and the games that have been released have pushed the envelope for handheld gaming. Sony has failed to transition and expand the image of the PSP as a "portable media entertainment" device. Even in Japan, Sony's HQ and the most likely place for the transition to be more accepted by consumers, the PSP is falling behind the more popular Nintendo DS and DS Lite. Besides- here in the United States the iPod is the dominant force in portable music and video content, and it seems unlikely that the PSP will be able to overtake them anytime soon.

So, is this the end of the UMD? Who knows? We all can recall tech relics of the past, the 5" Floppy disc, the Beta tape, and even more recently the 3.5" Floppy; but the fact is that some formats that find a niche die hard, until support for it dies or something equitable comes along. Laser Disc anyone? I hate to see any innovation fail, but I suppose that if we can build upon failures it will not be in vain. Either way, I'm not quite ready to sound the death knell for the UMD, and it seems that Sony is trying everything it can to save the format in some way. I have enjoyed watch movies on the device and I suspect that PSP owners in general have found other ways to enjoy movies on their own. And you can bet that if the retailers start marking down the UMD movies, that I'll be there to snatch some up. And I have enjoyed the PSP as a music player and web browser. I like it and will continue to use it.

However I think that the future of media and entertain lies no longer in the confines of formats. While we may see the format war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD play out soon, I believe I am with George Lucas is thinking that the true future in media entertainment lies in the server and media storage. We are really too tied into our physical objects. It's not necessarily a bad thing. Believe me, I'd much rather sit and read a book in it's physical form than try and read on online or on my Pocket PC. But at the same time, it makes it difficult for us to accept all-in-one devices or anything else that seems to do so many things. Heck, I still don't like a TV with a built in DVD player because my mind thinks, "If one or the other break, what will I do with the one that works?" Well, use it I guess or get it fixed- or buy another. My brain has been conditioned and hardwired in such a way that the idea of streamlining etc. is a quagmire rife with difficulty.

It shouldn't be that way. Signs already indicate that we are heading to a home that will have centralized servers that will download everything from movies to specials at the grocery store to the latest sports results, and all in one box. Can anyone guess what this is called? Why yes, Timmy- you are right. The internet. The future is here, folks. And things like TiVO, iPods, Blackberrys, etc demonstrate that the road lies more in how much we can push and get out of our devices and not necessarily how much we can get out of our chips, discs, cards, and cartridges. While there is still uncertainty - will the system crash, will I loose everything I've downloaded, I still want to backup stuff in case I buy a new device- future technology can provide answers and solutions if the marketplace is allowed the freedom to push the envelope. Besides, haven't we all wished we could be like the Jetsons when we were kids?

Thanks to Christian and crew here at Cinerati for allowing me to be a guest blogger. I have vacuumed the floor, put away my trash, and have not eaten all the chips and Easter candy. The Dr. Pepper is another story, but put it on my tab. As always come visit us over at The Shelf. Until next time, have a great weekend!

The views expressed by J.C. Loophole in this post are not necessarily those of the management. In fact, he probably didn't even run them by the management ahead of time, therefore resulting in a 90% probability that he will receive a tongue lashing later. After which he leave work early, stating he has a "cold", and will go by the store, pick up more Dr. Pepper and Peeps and drown his sorrows while watching a season set of "South Park" until he feels better. He will then work the sugar rush off during the weekend and end up getting into work late on Monday morning, thereby starting the whole process over again. We apologize in advance for any distress that this may cause, but let us be honest: we've all been there. So, go get your own Easter candy.

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