Sony's Next PSN Challenge: Restoring Reputation

After weeks of downtime, governmental scrutiny and untold user fury, Sony has finally begun to restore PlayStation Network and Qriocity streaming media services. It's not been an easy journey, either: it wasn't just server failure that took the PSN offline, but a security breach that saw millions of consumer records snatched out from under Sony's nose. With only the slightest publicly-released information to go on, systems experts have looked on in horror as Sony took a forced deep-dive through server strata, uncovering the flaws – in its data centers and its ego – that allowed the hack to take place. Still, Sony may find that restoring the PlayStation Network and Qriocity services were the easy part – rebuilding its ailing reputation may be far trickier.[Image credit: Michel Ngilen]

Sony started slow with its apologies and its explanations, letting users stew as they waited for the bad news to unfold. While the company insists that it only reached the realization that credit card information had been lost a week or so into the downtime, gamer consensus seems to be that they'd rather have had an earlier – if tentative – warning than feel like the people paying the fees were the last to know.

Since then, Sony has boosted its communication and outlined its compensation package, though the latter also seems to fall short of outraged expectations. Rationally, you can see how Sony's logic goes: give subscribers a month of free service (exceeding the downtime by almost a week), a selection of free content to download (yet to be detailed) and help them enroll in an identity protection scheme.

Problem is, there's little rational in the way users are feeling about the breach. This is seen as a betrayal, an unforgivable arrogance in how Sony treated its subscribers' data. Console ownership isn't like buying a microwave, or a TV, or even a smartphone – it's perhaps the pinnacle of the platform rivalry war. Are you an Xbox, or are you a PlayStation? With this public calamity, Sony has not only let itself down but undermined its gamers; given their Microsoft foes in the console wars a significant stick to beat them with.

Sony's key advantage is in its users' hardware investment. While the PSN isn't the only online service to have seen data loss in recent weeks – password management LastPass also reported a potential hack, for instance – hopping over to Xbox LIVE isn't as easy as, say, picking between a choice of online or "virtual" services. Frustrated Sony users may talk of ditching the PS3, but since that involves the expense of jettisoning console, accessories and existing game library, it's unclear how many will actually follow-through on their threats.

Still, we've already heard reports of increasing trade-ins of PS3s, with owners jumping ship to Microsoft's Xbox 360. As the next-generation consoles approach, too, Sony will have to work hard to restore its reputation: significant downtime and data loss may figure high in many users' considerations as to which platform to adopt next.

Gamers have long memories, and forge strong platform allegiances. Today's PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 owners generally began their brand addiction several generations back in each company's range. It's a relationship built on trust: an emotional investment (even if not everybody is a virulent "fanboy") as well as a financial one. Bringing the PSN back online keeps up Sony's end of the financial bargain, but it will likely take more than a few free downloads and a month's extra service to rebuild the emotional bridge.