Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Perils of Playstation

The Playstation Network (PSN), Sony's online platform for its Playstation game console, experienced an outage earlier this month, which was the result of an organised Denial of Service (DoS) hacking operation by a group calling themselves "Anonymous". At the time a number of videos were released which proported to represent the greviances of this group - primarily Sony's litigation of those who had apparently "jail-broken" it's PS3 console (which would allow pirated content to be played).

The individuals who had broken the console's encryption (principally George Hotz, who has hacked a number of systems - including the iPhone - and who is generally known by his tag "Geohotz") had argued that Sony's actions to reduce the functionality of the console - such as removing the ability to run other OS, such as Linux - beached user rights and that jailbreaking a machine you known is not actually illegal. Sony responded with a law suit which attempted to gain the IP addresses of users who had accessed the site containing the instructions to break the console. This, somewhat heavy-handed bout of litigation, resulted in the hacking operation which brought down PSN and various Sony websites from April 4th.

Ok, enough of the recent history and on to my personal experience and the relevance of all this to online video and music services. As you can read below, I own a PS3 and have subscriptions to a number of services - namely Lovefilm, Mubi and Qriocity - which operate on the console. I wasn't around for the original drama earlier this month, but I had seen some flakiness on PSN since then, with the service occasionally signing me out for no discernable reason. This kind of behaviour became rapidly worse on Friday 15th. Since then, I have had almost no access to PSN. If you have a look at both the EU and US Playstation forums it seems that I'm not alone as there are several long threads. What is strange is that there is no comment from Sony, barring some placatory posts on these threads that the problem "is being looked at".

Now, I'm not much of an online gamer (which has traditionally been the reason for PSN), and the console is obviously still connected to the network, as I can stream from local sources and can access the web through the playstation's browser. However, as I soon found out, not being logged in to PSN means that none of the services provided on the platform will work. Lovefilm, Mubi and Qriocity all require PSN connectivity to work and will not complete application loading without this - I can only assume that they use the PSN id for user authentication.

When I contacted Lovefilm and Mubi about this they both told me that they have no control over PSN and directed me to the streaming services provided by their websites, which is no good to me as I will never use my PC to watch a full-length feature. So, just to be clear, although Lovefilm and Mubi are external service providers with no affiliation to Sony, they are entirely dependent on Sony for service delivery on the PS3 platform and have no power to resolve issues with that platform. If you have a network related issue you can only call Sony. What I found even more curious was that I got the same story from Qriocity, who also just directed me to Sony's customer services.

So, I called Sony - on Tuesday evening, the 19th of April - following 5 days of loss of service. I spoke to a very reasonable chap who patiently explained to me that they were working on the issue but had not yet identified what was wrong. He also, somewhat curiously, categorically denied that it was a result of a hacking operation. When I asked him why there was no official message from Sony on their website he told me that there was "no need to do this as the problem is only effecting a minority of users", which doesn't appear to me to be a very good reason not to inform those users that there may be a problem. A quick look at the forums reveals a large group of very confused customers, many of whom at least initially thought they alone had an issue, and had wasted a large amount of time calling internet ISPs, etc. The fact that people like me are currently paying £30 in subs for a service which is not working didn't prompt any mention of a refund or even a very convincing apology.

As of today, it appears that Sony are applying some sort of global fix as PSN is completely down to all users. I can only hope whatever they will do will resolve the issue. But, I guess there's a general point in this as pertains to online video. If you are streaming music or video over the internet you may be doing so over several links, all of which represent a potential point of failure and most of which will probably be supported by a different provider. It may not be obvious which link has failed, so who do you call? And are subscription services being honest with consumers as to the reliability of their service. As of now, I have no indication from those companies I am paying for services that I am due a refund for PSN downtime.

[UPDATED: Sony has posted a blog entry admitting the problem may be caused by "an external party" -]
The Playstation situation is a special case but I forsee a busy time ahead for manufacturers of connected TVs and STBs as they are inundated with support calls from users who are having problems streaming media - problems which may, in the end, be better directed at internet service providers. Are these companies willing to ramp up their service centres to cope with this demand and better educate consumers? If OTT video and music services are to be viewed as a stable alternative to cable, terrestrial and satellite-based services I would advise that they do so.