As gamerfaces around the world anxiously await tomorrow's arrival of the PS4, Sony has been preparing for the fact that they will soon control a powerful new gateway in millions of homes.
One of the ways Sony hopes to leverage this position is by attempting to muscle in on the Netflixes and Spotifys of the world and become players' go-to media streaming medium.
The unremarkably named Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services were previously available for the PS3 and other parts of the Sony ecosystem. However, they have failed to gain any real traction. (Representatives from the company declined to provide any usage numbers).
But as the company prepares the new launch, it hopes a revamped UI will catapult its streaming services to the next level. The services may find an audience with some gamers, but their limited ecosystems and easy replaceability shouldn't cause the execs over at Netflix or Spotify to lose any sleep.
First, let's take a look at the big picture. The modern-day Sony ecosystem consists of numerous devices and doodads, which boast various levels of market oomf, but the PS4 is undoubtedly Sony's strongest global brand. It's also one that users will spend hours upon hours interacting with, thus making an ideal platform to launch a new quality streaming service.
In addition, as Nintendo's Wii U continues its tailspin into the great digital abyss and gamers are wary of the coming Xbox One, the PS4 has a chance to be the clear victor in this generation of console wars.
The new-look buffet-style Music Unlimited (MU) service will come pre-installed on every PS4, and--for now--will face no competition from other music streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, etc.
Like other music services, MU offers the ability to create playlists and will use an algorithm to recommend similar music based on your listening habits. Unlike most services, MU will not offer bios or background information on any artists--you'll have to leave that to Wikipedia. However, the big sell for the revamped MU is the service's ability to allow users to play their music over gameplay--directly through the console.
The ad-free music service is available in two paid subscription tiers: a $5-per-month plan that allows users to stream any of the service's 22 million songs over the Web or through their PS4; and a $10-per-month plan that will allow users to stream the service on their mobile devices or download them for offline access.
While Spotify offers a completely free ad-supported version, the service's ad-free paid tiers offer similar access to MU: $5 a month to listen ad-free online, $10 a month to access content across all devices.
The Music Unlimited may offer a nice additional functionality to the PS4 experience, however if users are already firmly entrenched in the Spotify or iTunes ecosystems, it may be just as easy to allow your laptop to provide your gaming soundtrack.
Sony is taking a slightly different approach for its Video Unlimited (VU) streaming service. Unlike the music service, VU will be available a la carte rather than buffet style. Also, the VU service will compete directly with other established streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu Plus, which are also available on the PS4.
VU's prices are on par with other established services: around $4 to rent a SD film and $5 for an HD (or $15 to purchase), while TV episodes are roughly $2 for SD and $3 for HD.
However, unlike other a-la-carte video streaming services, VU does not currently allow users to purchase bundled seasons of TV shows, though the company promises that that ability will come in the first half of next year.
Another shortfall for VU is the fact that it is currently only available within the Sony ecosystem through the PS4 or other PlayStation Portable devices, on Sony TVs, or through Sony's Media Go for Windows client. However, the company promises that it will offer web playback within the next six months.
VU offers a very Netflix-like scene-search interface and, like Netflix, will drop the streaming quality of the content before it re-buffers.
The execs in charge of VU's development were quick to point out the quickness with which content loaded. And, to be sure, the films on VU appeared to load quicker than Netflix, but only by a matter of seconds if that's important to you.
(We should also note that I had access to the PS4 system in a very controlled environment).
While the inclusion of competing established video services will make the PS4 a better home companion for consumers, it will probably also relegate Video Unlimited to be some also-ran piece of console bloatware.
If the PS4 is the smash hit everyone expects, Sony has a real opportunity to step into the streaming-media game. However, as the duo of services are now, their limited ecosystem will probably make them little more than something gamers' eyeballs quickly ignore on their way to play Call of Duty.