With the release of the PSP Go, the days of the UMD format are numbered. The UMD format was essentially an evolution of the sony mini disk from the 90’s. It was supposed to be the new mobile media format for games and movies and the PSP was the vehicle push it. Like other failed Sony formats before it, the UMD was not a success.

UMD

The PSP was designed to push the UMD format. It was not designed to make game play easier or more convenient. In contrast to the DS and all other handheld consoles before it, the PSP used an optical disk and as consequence had a spinning motor and laser apparatus. UMD disks were large and clunky to carry around, the motor was a drain on the battery and the laser, a point of failure on the system.

Enter Homebrew

Like all other consoles, it wasn’t long before hackers devised means of running unsigned/unauthorized code on their devices. As in most other cases, homebrew tends to be the occasional halfbaked home made app and piracy tools. However, unlike with other consoles, piracy on the PSP was not done using burned disks. Piracy in this case was done using the built-in memory stick drive. As a result, homebrewers not only had access to their library of games without carrying around a stack of disks, they got better battery life too. Because the system was not constrained by the UMD drive’s consumption of power, hacked PSPs could also run at the full 333Mhz clock speed — unhacked PSPs were limited to 222Mhz. Through homebrew, hackers were able to create the superior system the PSP should have been had Sony not tried to push UMD.

Piracy

Ordinarily, the masses do not hack their consoles. Most people are not willing to engage in a running arms race with the manufacturer. However, in most cases, hacking does not create a functionally superior console. PSP hacking became incredibly common. The presence of the memory stick made it as simple as putting an image in the pictures folder. The simplicity of the process and the sheer benefit of hacking the PSP encouraged people to do it.

Piracy became rampant when people stopped ripping their UMD’s to the memory stick and just downloaded them off the internet. Copy protection schemes exist not to prevent mass piracy, but to prevent the casual pirate. A determined prate will pirate a game regardless, the causal pirate will pirate if it is as easy as "copying a floppy". Having already hacked their PSP’s to remove the limitations placed on it by UMD, piracy on the PSP became as easy as copying a file to a disk. Why would anyone pay $30 or more for a game they can just get from their friend of off a website.

PSP Go!, Napster and iTunes

Sony has finally realized the damage done to the PSP’s ecosystem by UMD and removed it from the PSP Go!. What does this say about the future of the PSP? It is technically possible to go back from a lawless piracy based system to one where people pay for content. This was proven by the movement away from free music on Napster to paying for it in the iTunes music store. Having created an environment where piracy is rampant, the PSP store needs to compete with piracy. The only way they can do it is by providing obvious benefits to getting the content legitimately. Apple did this by making it simple, fast and high quality. What Sony needs to figure out is how they they are going to differentiate a UMD Iso gotten for free off bittorrent from one in the store. One obvious solution would be to not support UMD anymore so the ISOs can’t be created. Completely getting rid of the UMD legacy might be the only way the PSP can survive.