By Hunter Burk, University of Michigan
How quickly things can change. Just five years ago, Sony sold 150 million Playstation 2 units, the highest sales numbers ever for a home console. A technological behemoth was about to be unleashed in the PlayStation 3. Fast forward to the present and one can see that the PS3 has not brought about the same success for Sony, as the console’s sales lag at third overall. Yet, despite no longer being top dog, Sony has become the target of wave after wave of attacks from hackers.
Sony managed to vex consumers in more ways than one. By stripping the PS3 of some of its initially promised features in a series of cost-cutting moves, a lot of gamers felt shortchanged like they are being sold short on what they were initially promised. Sony phased out both PS2 emulation and OtherOS, which allowed the system to run third-party operating systems like Linux. The loss of OtherOS, stripped partially in an attempt to curb PS3 modifications, especially peeved off a devout section of the PS3 community.
In response, the mod community set out to create a custom firmware that combined Sony’s release with these previously disposed-of features. Although such a firmware was never released, the efforts were not completely lost; on January 2, 2011, hacker George Hotz, who famously jailbroke the iPhone, posted the root keys for the PS3, allowing users to jailbreak the console itself.
Afraid at what piracy might result, Sony responded by filing a lawsuit against Hotz. In addition, the company sought out the IP addresses of everyone who viewed or commented on content posted by Hotz detailing how to jailbreak the system. The lawsuit was the last straw for a portion of PS3’s user base, signaling to them that they didn’t own their console; they were merely leasing it from Sony.
In response, famed hacker group Anonymous brought down the PlayStation Network and Sony Careers page in a planned protest on April 16, eventually letting up when PS3 users cried out that the attacks were doing more harm than good. Then, on April 19, the PlayStation Network that enables online gameplay, along with the Sony Qriocity streaming music service went down.
After a week, Sony finally let on that network security had been breached and that all 77 million PSN accounts had been compromised, possibly including credit card information. Sony was forced to rebuild the network from the ground up to overhaul its security. A partial relaunch, which included the restoration of online play, didn’t come until May 14, and it took until June 1 for the company to reboot the PlayStation Store and get the entire network back up to snuff. PS3 owners would be deprived of online play for nearly a month. The entire outage is rumored to have cost Sony $171 million, but those attacking have yet to be appeased; subsequent attacks have brought about breaches to both Sony Online Entertainment and Sony Pictures.
In the wake of Sony’s public relations nightmare, the company has done the distance to make it up to their customers. To start, Sony has introduced a “Welcome Back” program, which they bolstered after complaints from PSN users over the initial offering. Affected gamers are entitled to 2 of 5 select PS3 games, 2 of 4 PSP games (if they own a PSP), and a free month subscription to PlayStation Plus (two for already enrolled members). In addition, Sony has offered up a 12-month, $1 million identity theft insurance policy as insurance against potentially stolen credit information.
While such measures might be sufficient for tiding users over in the short-term, it remains to be seen what long term effects are in store for Sony for such a breach of trust. Although sales of PS3 for April were up 13% compared to last year, Sony has considerable reason to worry. For one, at this year’s E3 Sony is introducing a new handheld, the NGP. The catch is that the NGP is entirely network dependent. Whether users will want to purchase a new, expensive piece of hardware from Sony if its entire functionality is tied to Sony’s shaky online service is to be determined.
Microsoft recovered from the blight the “Red Ring of Death” left on the 360’s image with its $1 billion warranty plan. For now, the outcome of Sony’s attempts to reanimate consumers remains up in the air.