Does Innovation Stifle Standards? Or Do Standards Stifle Innovation?

Excited about his new digital camcorder, my friend Amar invited me over for dinner and some great wine as well to take me up on my offer to get him, his wife and two young daughters up to speed on digital photography. A proud owner of new Sony digital video and still cameras.

The goal? Simple. Show how easy it is to take pictures or movies and then get them into his new iMac. Then edit movies, crop photos, create web pages. The whole nine yards. You know. The digital hub and lifestyle stuff. Confident I proceed to configure the camcorder out of the box. Date, time. battery and tape. Tape. I kinda like that word. In all this digital world, we’re still using tape.

This tape however, was a bit funky. Small. Cool. As a loyal Canon user for many years, I’m not always up on the latest Sony camera stuff. But I proceeded to load the new micro sized tape into the camera. I verified it had a FireWire port and onto film the puppet show the kids were performing for us this evening.

Easy enough. I go through basic video photography. Setting up shots. Doing cutaways. Close ups. Etc. Then upstairs to the iMac. I plug in the FireWire cable and boot up iMovie. It was then I realized that something was wrong in SonyLand. Or perhaps Cupertino. iMovie didn’t recognize the Sony Camera.

I thought this was odd. I know that Final Cut Pro sometimes has issues with supported cameras, but for the most part iMovie dumbs down everything to make it so damn simple. But no. Here I am supposed Mac and Video/Photo guru and I can’t even edit a short clip on the iMac.

The Sony MicroMV IP7. I fiddled around and final did a search on the discussion boards. Aha! No wonder that tape is so small. It’s a new format. Developed by whom? You guessed it. Sony! The technology looks great. The cameras offer up to 1.5 megapixels (this is video now) and 530 lines of resolution. The camera is tiny and so is the tape. It uses a Carl Zeiss lens, has BlueTooth built in. Wow. But this isn’t right.

The new MicroMV format records in something totally different (MPEG-2) than MiniDV (the defacto standard). And as such, it is not supported by iMovie. Nor does any other standard consumer video editing software support it. Except one. Who makes it? You guessed it again. Sony. Good ole Sony Movie Shaker software.

Sony is one of those companies that aren[base ‘]t afraid to innovate. I like that. However good they look as a marketing company, they have the soul and spirit of an engineering company. For as many successes they’ve had, they’ve had more than that many failures. Technologies that were good. Maybe great. But they didn’t stick. Sony is still trying to get widespread acceptance of MiniDisc. And what’s up with this memory stick thing? Let’s not forget their biggest blunder: BetaMax (an interesting sidebar on copyright and DRM in this nearly 20 year old decision). I could go on.

Who knows if this new MicroMV format will take off. But there are problems. Like where do you buy more tape on a Sunday in downtown Jefferson City? Sony is notorious for throwing proprietary technologies at the wall hoping one in 10 stick. But the consumer who has come to trust one of the most recognized brands in the world ends up with a garage full of junk.

Think of the flack that developers get when they incorporate technologies into websites or web applications that are not compatible with platforms, browsers or other technologies. Look at the heat MovieLink is taking for its non-cross platform compatible “innovative” service. And in web development, how many developers rant and rave about browser testing and the failure of Microsoft, Netscape, Opera, Omni, Mozilla or whatever to adhere to W3C standards?

But this is a free market. Competition is good. Breeds innovation and exciting new products. Yet in this era where traditional lines of competition are blurred and joint ventures, strategic partnerships and symbiotic relationships are created both for the good of business and the market, you’d think that with the hugely popular MiniDV format that Sony might have had a few more ducks in a row before unleashing yet another video format on an unsuspecting public? I guess it’s tough to maintain margins on a maturing technology. And tough to command more dollars for parity products — even with the strength of the Sony Brand.

And while I’m sure Sony disclosed somewhere in its literature, website or dealer training the limitations (issues) of yet another new technology, I’m afraid Amar just didn’t get the big picture.

I helped Amar pack up the camcorder for return. We went back on the web and order another camcorder. Yes Sony. The format? MiniDV. And I’ll look forward to another puppet show, great Indian food and iMovie training redux.