The Case For Physical Media

I like digital and love gadgets. My problem is that I’m also a huge fan of physical media and the whole culture of collectibles. I love the whole thing. The packaging, the artwork, the exclusives, the limited edition – and as like a friend of mine succinctly put it, “the thrill of the hunt.”

My theory is that for a long time, for the most part; the existence of physical media has not only helped me with my desire but helped the content and entertainment industries with their distribution and copyright law. Outside of the obvious piracy and duplication (which would always exist), the act of placing one form of digital content on a non-digital, limited in quantity, physical media helped manage and create an entire ecosystem, globally. Of course when you think about this today, it sounds rediculous – using non-digital means to distribute digital content; but I’d argue this was absolutely necessary and vital in the beginning.

Physical distribution helps on two major fronts. Firstly it does create a tangible asset and value to an otherwise intangible product. This tangible asset can then be tracked, sold, re-sold, distributed and even destroyed.

Secondly, related to the first, but vital to understand in it’s own importance, is that humans UNDERSTAND the principals of physical media. Ignore for a second the fact that much of it can be duplicated or copied; because you may say the same thing about counterfeit watches or xerox machines. The sheer fact that a physical copy of a media exists (in space and time) brings with it certain concepts, fundamental to human understanding that goes back a long way.

The first concept is the idea of limitation of resources. If I buy a book and loan it to you. I cannot enjoy it for myself during that duration.

The second is the idea of finiteness and consumption. If I purchase a sandwich and eat it. No one else can enjoy it.

The third is the actual idea of attaching value to the actual media. The medium is the message to quote Marshall McLuhan. A videogame is actually nothing more than lines of code. But that’s not what users (think) they pay for. They pay for the program, on a cartridge, in a box, with the manuals. All this peripherals are combined to become one entity, in one package. The same goes for a Blu-Ray Disc, a music CD or a physical book.

But you can see how this starts to fall apart with the new generation of digital distribution. For all it’s many benefits; I’ve yet to see how content owners, online store fronts and digital distributors come to grips with the ideas that have helped establish the basis for how their content in valued, in a consistent and fair way that benefits and respects both the content owners and the users across multiple platforms.

This has always been a pet topic of mine, but it recently resurfaced because I was toying with the idea of buying my wife a new Nintendo DSi. So like any good geek, the first question I googled was “If I bought a second Nintendo DS, would I be able to use my store account to redownload my purchases?” A perfectly reasonable question I thought, afterall, Apple allows for this on their iOS devices.

To my surprise, I discovered pages and pages of forum posts from disgruntled Nintendo DS owners calling Nintendo “greedy” and the “most evil company in the world”…all because the answer for this was, “No.”

I can see both sides of the arguments (as the posts argued as well). For example, “if you had purchased a game on one DS unit and SOLD that DS on to someone else, why would Nintendo be obliged to actually give you a second copy of the same game?” Of course there are ways for Nintendo to manage around this, but the best point here I think is that, they ARE NOT managing this well to cater for their digital distribution.

You think Nintendo is evil? They’ve had another solution for decades.

It’s called physical game cartridges.

Consider the handheld console called the Gameboy Advance. This was introduced in 2001 and went through several generations that ended with the the Gameboy Micro in 2008. Along the way, Nintendo released a new successive portable console called the Nintendo DS in 2004 and through to the next generation (Nintendo DS Lite) which Nintendo produced all the way till 2011. A physical gameboy cartridge that you bought back in 2001, would be playable by any of this handheld devices including a device that was produced as recently as last year.

Now isn’t that, fantastic? Insane to play an eleven year old game. Maybe?

But what an investment. What a payback for a gameboy owner.

And what support from a manufacturer.

How long and viable will current digital distribution system be? How fair will they be to consumers? Let’s not even ask about ten year cycles. Let’s talk about two days support.

Consider Apple again. It’s fantastic that they enable their purchased applications to work on up to ten iOS devices. That’s great. But it’s not consistent. If you purchase music, that’s only good for up to five Macs or PCs. If you rent a movie on any of their devices, you have 24 HOURS to watch it from the time you click play. Twenty-four HOURS!

I’m am positive this has to do more with the content owners than Apple, but as a consumer do I have to care? I never did in the past when I was purchasing physical media. Now I’m being preached to death about these new digital ecosystems but it seems I have to be an expert in all the nuts and bolts about where, how, when and for how long I get to consume my purchased media.

And this doesn’t even take into account other new threats like online fraud; phishing, piracy and just genuine cluster-f*&*s. Consider X-Box Live gamer Josh Hinkle’s three month ban from his online account and all the content he paid for.

I’m all for progress and convenience. But I’m also all for craftsmanship, artwork, and the physicality of owning something I’ve purchased. And I’m definitely all in, for deciding how, when and for how long I can consume the content I’ve purchased. Until now, I see no concerted effort by any of the major players to bring about a consistent and fair way for paying, retaining and consuming content across industries and verticals. Perhaps it’s not in their interest, but maybe it should be. Maybe someone should step up and try to piece this fragmented landscape together.

So far we’ve dealt with the issue of compatibility and consistency, but what about fairness? There’s a simple example to illustrate this. Why does Angry Birds cost $0.99 on iTunes, $4.99 on Blackberry AppsWorld and is made available for free on Android Marketplace? The very same game. Not some HD version or a different code base like when you go between Fifa Soccer for iOS versus Fifa Soccer for the PS3.

Right now you could go to a hypermarket like Carre Four or Target to get a book, a DVD, or a music CD and you could bring all those home with you in the same car and consume all of them in your own living room. Today it just feels like I can only digitally consume that same book, movie and CD in different (devices) rooms, at different (allowed) times, with selected (shared ID) people, for as long as (DRM or compatibility) someone allows me too.

In my geek locker, the future of distribution has still some ways to go to catch up with the present it’s reputed to be replacing.

And I haven’t even shared about how much I sold my gameboy advance cartridge of Zelda on ebay for yet.

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