Love It or Hate It, Sony's Latest Stokes Passions

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, January 4, 2007

Mauricio Soto and Arne Fleisher have love-hate relationships with Sony Electronics. Soto loves the company. Fleisher hates it.

For gadget lovers, a certain reverence for Sony used to be an instinctive thing that dated to the Walkman or the original PlayStation.

But these days, the consumer-electronics giant is struggling with its image as new game fans line up to play the Nintendo Wii or dis the PlayStation 3's graphics for not having as much punch as such recent Xbox 360 offerings as Gears of War. Remember those $2,700 eBay auctions for the PS3 when it first came out, just before Thanksgiving? They've since cooled off, and now it's easy to find one on Craigslist for near list price.

Listen to Sony's die-hard fans and there's an overwhelming belief that Sony is always on the cutting edge of technology. Nobody makes a laptop as small or flashy as the Vaio. Nobody makes a mobile device quite as slick or versatile as the PlayStation Portable. And the PS3 is already being called the best device on the market by Sony lovers -- mostly because it's the gaming console that plays all the games they liked on the PS2 and the original PlayStation.

Soto is about as die-hard as they come. He sold his Xbox 360 to pay for a PlayStation 3 back in November. He also has a PlayStation Portable, a Sony laptop, a Sony handheld computer and two Sony cameras. His car stereo system is all Sony, as is the home theater system that plugs into one of the four Sony televisions in his Potomac townhouse.

I met Soto in November, when I was writing about the craziness surrounding the launch of the PS3. He was camped out at the head of a line at Best Buy in Rockville, waiting for the new game console to go on sale. When I asked what he was thinking, spending his time out in the cold and rain to get the $600 device, his answer boiled down to this: "It's Sony."

"I'm confident in their products," he said this week. "I always look at Sony first -- they're always coming up with new ways to stay ahead of the game, new ways to stay ahead of the market."

He makes an exception for the MiniDisc, an audio format that Sony pushed but that never caught on. Soto owns two MiniDisc players.

This is what Sony love looks like.

By comparison, Sony haters say the company's products are too expensive. They criticize as annoying its habit of relying on pricey proprietary formats, such as the Memory Stick -- convenient if you already own a bunch of Sony products, somewhat useless if you don't. And what's more, the rep goes, the company doesn't provide good product support.

Arne Fleisher used to be a big-time Sony fan. He had admired the company since he was a kid and had a Walkman cassette player. As an adult, he has owned Sony cellphones, cordless phones, laptops, a VCR or two -- and, yes, even one of those MiniDisc players.

The falling out didn't happen at once. There were plenty of bumps in the road that he sees now only in retrospect: gadgets that didn't work right, support issues and so on. But his Sony hatred didn't kick in until 91 days after he bought a PlayStation 2 back in 2000, when the system launched.

Day 91 was when Fleisher's PlayStation 2 died -- one day after the warranty expired. The company told him it would cost $150 and take four to six months to repair the device. Annoyed, Fleisher passed on the company's offer and sold the unit.

This was the beginning of what he calls the "Sony, you're on life support and I don't need you" phase of his relationship with the company.

Years later, when his four-year-old Xbox started failing him, he placed a call to Microsoft. Two days later, a new unit landed on his doorstep -- even though the old system's warranty had long since expired.

This sent him into the "Sony, you're dead to me" phase. He has avoided the company's products ever since.

I loaned the PS3 to Fleisher last month, curious to see if he'd have a change of heart. Would the thing bring a former Sony fan back into the fold, or would it give him more reason to dislike the consumer-electronics giant?

"I figured I was going to be in a conundrum, that I made this boycott," he said. "I was positive that I was going to have to eat my own words."

Somewhat to his relief, the system ended up giving him pretty much no temptation to reach for his wallet. The games were okay, he said, but nothing great. Compared with the Xbox 360, the online offerings for the PS3 are weak and confusing, he said. One of his favorite parts of the Xbox 360 experience is going online to play with friends, but the PS3 doesn't offer this as a prominent feature.

It's not hard to see why game fans might become partisans for the consoles they play on. You're a lot better off, fun-wise, if your friends buy the same system you get so you can all play online together. And with the high-end Xbox costing $400 and the high-end PS3 costing $600, it has become too expensive for most gaming fans to pick up both machines.

Here's the funny part, though: Xbox love doesn't translate to Microsoft love. That is to say, Xbox owners love their Xboxes but many would rather ignore the fact that the product comes from Microsoft, a company that has often had image problems among techies of the world.

Fleisher, for example, wishes that the company's game-console team ran Microsoft, not the other way around. Or that the Xbox team had nothing to do with the software company.

"I always say Xbox," he said, "because I don't like to associate it with Microsoft."

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