ESSAY #11

Can Someone Teach Sony What "Standard" Means?

 

Having finished the unit on "Standards", let's take a look at some anomalies.  Sony is a great place to begin.

We talked in class about the VHS-versus-Betamax competition, back about the time you were being born.  In the classic manner of a sore loser Sony has been on a rampage ever since, seeking sadistic revenge on consumers in the arena of standards.

A few years ago, I purchased a Sony video camera, along with some accessories, such as an extra battery, a tripod mount, an external microphone, carry case, and an adapter cable to connect the camera to my television and VCR. 

Less than a  year later, the camera developed a glitch, and the repair center told me it could not be fixed.  Since it was still under warranty, they gave me a credit towards a new camera.  The problem was, my model camera wasn't sold anymore, so I had to purchase a new model. 

The new model, while technologically the same as my former camera, was shaped slightly different, so my carry-case was useless.  Worse, the new model used a different battery design, a different tripod mount, a different microphone connector, and a different adapter!  My entire investment in accessories from eight months' earlier was worthless.  What's more, the set-up, menu system, and operation of the new model were entirely different, too, requiring a new learning curve.   Why?  There was no apparent reason for the changes, nor was there any apparent reason for not using existing battery sizes, plug designs, etc.

Was this a fluke?  A one-time mistake on the part of some absent-minded engineer?

Noooo.  Four years later, the new camera bit the dust, and I went to purchase another.  At the local store, the salesman talked me into another Sony.   Silly me.

Sony had now abandoned the world-wide standard VHS format, and was using something called "Sony Hi-8" format for its tapes.  Okay, that's progress.  But the new camera still used battery power, still output a video signal, and still required house current to charge.  But this time, the new camera not only didn't use standard connectors, it didn't use the Sony connectors that were on the old camera for the same video output, audio, or charger input either.

The batteries also were still non-standard, and also were different than the Sony batteries from my last Sony product.   And the charger plug was different, too!  Astoundingly, the voltage and current ratings were the same, only the battery size, shape, and charger connector were different.  Why?

To add insult to injury, once I bought the Hi-8 camera, I discovered Sony didn't manufacture a Hi-8 tape player!  There was no way we could buy a player for grandma and grandpa in Florida so they could enjoy the tapes we made.  The only way to share tapes with others was to connect the camera to an outboard VCR and duplicate the tape!  E.g., Sony wanted us to use someone else's  >>standard<< medium, in addition to their own proprietary one! 

Now fast forward another eighteen months.  My Hi-8 camera began eating tapes.  Once again, the Sony repair dealer said it couldn't be fixed, and I needed a new camera.    I had no intention of buying another Sony product, but alas, in an attempt to surprise me, my wife beat me to the punch, and purchased a new video camera.  To my dismay, it turned out to be a Sony.

Yep, you guessed it.  The new camera this time used yet another Sony "invention" called "Digital-8" tape format.  It also used different (and still non-standard!) connections for its output!  It used yet another charger plug, even with the exact same voltage and current requirements!  And once again, I had to purchase yet another complete new set of spare batteries, because now the Sony's were using "M" model batteries instead of the "L" batteries from the previous model!  Plus a different carry case!  And get this:  the new model was almost exactly the same overall size and weight of the earlier one!  There was no obvious reason for the new battery size, shape, the carry case incompatibility, charger plug change, etc.

My home video collection was now spread between VHS tapes, Hi-8 tapes, and Digital-8 tapes.  Like Hi-8, nothing would play the Digital-8 tapes except the new camera itself.  Worst of all, now that the analog Hi-8 camera was kaput there was no way to play the Hi-8 tapes at all anymore.   

In an attempt to salvage my priceless home movies, I borrowed a friend's old Sony Hi-8 videocam to transfer my Hi-8 tapes to DVD, and guess what!  HIS model of Sony Hi-8 handicam does not fit MY Sony Hi-8's connector cables!  When I went back to him to borrow his cables, it never dawned on me that I should have borrowed his extra battery and his charger, too, because -- get this! -- his camera used yet still another different type of battery and charger plug!

The most interesting thing in all of this is:  my original Sony VHS camera, the very first one I purchased, produces the sharpest, clearest, most colorful image of the entire batch!  Over 10 years of progress, and those first VHS tapes, now 10 years old, still produce the best picture on the TV screen, hands down, as shown by the demo we did in class.

Can someone, anyone, teach Sony engineers the meaning of "standard"?  A wheel is a wheel.  Why does every Sony product have to re-invent its own wheel?

Having worked with marketers, I can completely understand why Sony would use proprietary Sony connectors, cables, and batteries different from the rest of the world.  IBM, HP, and many other large selfish companies use this ploy, frustrating their customers to no end.  But why on earth does Sony use different plugs, battery configurations, connectors, and menu layouts within its own product line?  It's not like there is a technological reason for it... the products are almost identical size, weight, usage, quality, everything, and there is no visible reason for differences in connectors, battery shapes and sizes, plug construction, carry-bag shape, etc. 

Why?  To steal more money from its customers, perhaps?  I alone have had to replace four different sets of perfectly good batteries, and four different sets of perfectly good cables, learn four different operational procedures, throw away four different chargers, etc.  Maybe we could sic Greenpeace on them for encouraging the "disposable society", having to discard perfectly working devices?

We have AA, AAA, C, D, and whole host of CR and AG standards for battery sizes and configurations.  Why aren't any of these good enough for Sony? 

We have RCA plugs, S-video, DVI, and HDMI for video and audio.  We have USB-A, and USB-B, both regular and mini for video and audio. We have IEEE 1394 (Firewire) to handle video and audio.  Why aren't any of these good enough for Sony?

The answer is:  Sony has learned an important lesson about society from the banks, phone companies, credit card companies, airlines, and Microsoft:   Contrary to popular thinking, the customer really, truly, doesn't matter at all

Sony has finally joined the elite group of companies -- the ones that know you can tick off your customers as much as you want, irritate them, make life hard for them, frustrate them, keep them from achieving their objective, -- and no matter how rough you make it on your poor customers, they just won't go away! 

Big banks, credit card issuers, cable TV companies, large department stores, cellular and telephone and internet providers -- they all know that customer satisfaction is completely irrelevant to making money and keeping your stock prices high (the only two things that really matter in today's economy).

The introduction of high-definition digital video is going to be interesting.  Right now, there are two so-called standards. Sony is touting its Blu-Ray, while Toshiba and a couple of other companies are promoting HD-DVD.  While the media pundits call this a "standard", it really isn't a consumer-level standard at all, but rather a "producer-level" standard.  Calling the Blu-Ray-vs-HDDVD a standards war is like calling the "Boeing vs. Airbus" a standards war.  What the consumer wants between this choice is irrelevant.  A few large companies will decide which format they will use, because to the consumer, both deliver what is essentially the same product.  Once several of the producers have selected one format over the other (due more to politics, payoffs, and the good-ol-boy system than any valid reason), the consumers will simply end up taking what they are given.  When was the last time an airline asked you which plane you prefer, an Airbus or a Boeing?

VHS and Betamax all over again.  Maybe Sony will win this one, and another company will take over the role of vengeful sore loser.   Someone will.  Count on it.

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Required:  First, individually review the Reading #6 on the role that standards play in technology, and Reading #7 on the differences between consumer-level standards and producer-level standards.

In your groups, think of some manufacturers who make wide use of true consumer-level standards.  Why do those companies not follow the lead of Sony in making their own proprietary battery sizes, configurations, formats, and connections?  Why do those companies use standardized connectors?  Why do they use standardized batteries?  Why do they use standard formats? 

Do you really think that customer convenience has anything to do with the engineers' decisions?  Why or why not? 

Next, study Reading #8 addressing the concept of interchangeability, Reading #9 on the effect of standards on human progress, and Reading #10 on learning curves.  Come to class ready to discuss some ways of applying the concept of "standards" to software interface design.