If it took Steve Jobs several weeks to figure out how to do it, and Roger Clemens never quite grasped it, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that Sony is reaching all sorts of new lows in its struggle to apologize, inform and take responsibility for the ongoing debacle that is the PlayStation Network outage.
It's been several weeks now since Sony informed us that a yet-unidentified hacker (Anonymous? Is that you?) crept deep enough into the PSN's sensitive store of user data to force Sony to pull the whole thing down, leaving thousands of gamers cut off from big chunks of the PlayStation 3's feature set.
From a public-relations perspective, it's sure been entertaining to watch the aftermath. (Not so much from a gamer's perspective.) The back-and-forth nature of the info leaks hasn't exactly screamed confidence and control. First, Sony couldn't be sure our credit-card information hadn't been compromised -- no, wait, it definitely hadn't. Well, except for all those millions of Sony Online Entertainment subscribers. Those guys are basically screwed. And really, everything's going back to normal soon.
But even that hasn't proved to be true. Sony promised that some parts of the PSN would be up and running last week. Now we're hearing things like "well, maybe by May 31," which means Sony's now managed to violate yet another cardinal rule of public relations -- you know, the one about overpromising and underdelivering.
Predictably, the company is now awash in the type of backlash that comes when it seems like somebody important isn't acting in a forthcoming manner -- multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits, forum boards aflame with haters and, best of all, subpoenas from Capitol Hill. Which Sony, in another brilliant PR move, decided to blow off. (Seriously, Sony -- you have a business partnership with Major League Baseball. Has it not occurred to you to watch and learn what scorn toward Washington earns you?)
I keep thinking of former Yankee pitcher Andy Petitte, the only major-league baseball player to step up and admit he used steroids after his name appeared on the notorious 100-player list of dudes who'd flunked their drug tests. Pettite's approach was simple and straightforward: He confessed, sincerely apologized and explained that he'd used drugs to hasten the recovery of an injured elbow to get himself back into the rotation. He'd screwed up and broken the rules as much as any other steroid player, but because he addressed everything immediately and succinctly, the public forgave Pettite almost effortlessly. And he never even put our credit rating at risk or prevented us from downloading new levels of LittleBigPlanet 2.
The more information that leaks out, in posts on Sony's PlayStation Blog and through the rumor mill, the more it seems like Sony brought this catastrophe on themselves -- and no, I'm not talking about Sony's ill-fated decision to toss a 100-pound gauntlet in the faces of hackers who'd released some of the PS3's security protocols by going after them in court like Donald Trump dives on rumors about Obama. Seriously, no firewall in place for sensitive PSN data? That sound you just heard was a million skilled IT security professionals slapping their foreheads in unison. Then slapping them again. These are the things that help you understand why consumer rage continues to be directed at Sony, and not the lawless bastards who decided to hack their way to infamy and deny us the opportunity to play DC Universe Online.
Late last week, embattled (and, I suspect, soon to be ousted) Sony CEO Howard Stringer issued the mea culpa release that should have come well, well before that deadly six-day gap between the point Sony realized something was seriously wrong with their network and the point they decided to inform the public. Stringer is appropriately contrite and sincere, promising to fix the problem. Elsewhere, the company has begun to talk about offering PS3 owners something for their three weeks and counting's worth of trouble.
Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but as make-good efforts go, the one aimed at U.S. Sony users seems awfully self-serving. While PS3ers in Europe are reportedly getting several free games out of the deal, it appears the U.S user base may only be offered a free month of PlayStation Plus, Sony's premium content service.
Here's the thing: Plus is, like Napster, a service that's only useful as long as you remain a paid subscriber -- as soon as you bail out, you lose access to all the games, DLC and demos you've downloaded. As Steve Jobs learned when he was finally forced to face the fact that yes, the iPhone 4 did indeed have a serious issue with dropped calls, the permanent and tangible good will of a warehouse of free plastic iPhone cases went a long way toward restoring sunshine to Apple's universe. Giving us something and then asking us to pay $50 a month to keep using it isn't the way to go.
Even though it's been handled more clumsily than Something Borrowed, the PSN debacle won't kill Sony any more than technical glitches killed the iPhone brand or rampant steroid abuse among players killed our interest in professional baseball -- we love our entertainment and technology way too much to walk away so easily. It's hard to argue, however, with the growing sense that Sony's hubris, borne of rampant success the company enjoyed in the PlayStation 2 era, has quickly become the company's fatal flaw.
Here's the upshot: the game conference E3 is less than a month away, and if the PSN imbroglio isn't fully resolved by the first week of June, Sony could find itself forced to use the year's biggest videogame stage for further damage control, while their competitors are using it to hawk new games and platforms. If that happens, we'll have reached the point where we'll need to change the company's tagline to "It only does spin."