Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The death of optical media: Can a purely digital lifestyle work?

The last time I used a CD was, ironically, to copy the content onto my computer so I didn’t have to use the CD. Before that I hadn’t used one in months, and in fact, the only kind of optical media I use at all are DVDs, and even then I tend to have copies on computers or iPods so I don’t have to use the physical disk. 99% of all software I buy are downloads, so the only physical item I own is the license key, and 100% of the music I buy is download-able. I’m living wirelessly, slowly removing optical media from my life, this, we are told, is the future of home entertainment and product purchasing. However, the idea has been slow to catch on, none more demonstrated by consumers outrage when optical drives are removed from computers (see the Macbook Air backlash). People are still clinging on to optical media, and so I’m asking the question, can a purely digital media lifestyle work at this point in time?

At a very basic level I believe one of the main problems is people’s perceptions of digital media. An item is deemed to have less value if it isn’t physical, you often hear complaints that digital media (e.g. songs from iTunes or Amazon) cost the same as their physical counter-parts, despite the consumer literally getting less for it. When you buy a physical CD you get the packaging and a booklet, you get more for your money, and in that sense people may feel more inclined to buy the CD than the mp3. This problem in particular has been tackled by companies providing digital booklets when you download a CD, but I don’t think this is really a solution, a booklet should be a physical item and in a digital context a booklet has little use or meaning. I don’t ever remember feeling grateful for getting a digital sleeve when I last bought an album, humans are tactile animals and as such we place more value on that which we can touch and feel. As such, what basically needs to happen is the music companies need to accept that at this point in time people perceive digital content as of less value, and therefore prices need to be reduced. If people could get an album off iTunes for less than at HMV that not only makes logical sense (because you get less) but makes the digital media more attractive. As an aside, this should surely cost the companies less in packaging, printing and delivery, and be better for the environment, I just feel like the music industry moguls see themselves as losing control if they allow content to become more attractive online.

In addition to perception of price people need educating on the security of a digital purchase. If their computer breaks, if the hard drive fails, or if the registration key is lost there needs to be an easy system of retrieval. Whilst people may see digital content as less secure (again, because there isn’t that sense of physically owning something), they need to be aware that digital ownership is in some ways more secure. If a system is in place where people can re-download music, movies or programs which have been corrupted, or re-obtain license keys for single machines then the security of purchase is in place. If you scratch or loose a CD it’s gone forever, if it’s corrupted on your computer you can fix it, which in some ways should add value, not necessarily to the price, but to the concept of digital ownership.

We’ve already seen the growth of digital media, iTunes is the daddy right now, but with devices such as the iPhone/iPod touch, and the recently announced PSP Go, offering their content as digital only it’s becoming more and more accepted that download-able media has a value. The problem is that with the wealth of free entertainment on the internet, I get the feeling some people resent paying for anything online (above their ISP costs of course). People’s perception of value needs to be shifted away from physical items, a program you download is exactly the same as one you buy on a disc, but a pre-occupation with physical purchases skews people’s understanding of value. Because of this there needs to be a ‘meet-in-the-middle’ strategy whereby those providing content online need to make it less expensive than it’s physical counter-part. Putting a premium on manufacturing costs is not only better from an environmental stand-point, but it also paves the way for a digital future where services provided online are not unfairly treated as value-less because of the lack of understanding of the effort required from the people behind them.

For this digital future to work there needs to be some concessions made by governments. Firstly, higher bandwidth and high speed internet needs to be rolled out in countries that are currently crippled by slow internet speeds. If optical media is really dying out then HD content wont be bought on Blu-Ray (though that’s kinda true now) but will be downloaded, or streamed, directly to televisions or media centre computers. For that to happen people don’t want to watch movies that constantly have to re-buffer, or have to wait a day for it to download, they want it in minutes. Secondly, better quality media needs to be provided, the option of downloading full HD is not possible (as far as I am aware), in any legal way at least, and as such Blu-Ray is currently a better choice for picture quality aficionados. Thirdly, DRM is not the solution to piracy, it just cripples the experience of using digital media. Part of the advantage with optical media is the ability to share and use it on any system, a CD will work with any stereo and a DVD will work with any DVD player. There must be a consensus of digital media devices working with all speakers and all televisions, there must not be a proprietary hold on the entire system of enjoying the media, as that destroys the concept of sharing between friends and family. The ability to remote stream from any device to any other device would be a huge step forward, though would involve the co-operation of all companies involved.

Overall, I don’t think optical media is dead just yet, but it has begun. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and a lot of co-operation, to create a future where we rely on the internet for our entertainment purposes. There also need to be a shift in the value people place on physical items compared to digital items, or else the concept wont get very far. I’m not sure optical media will die out completely (how would you install OSs? Unless they were provided on flash drives perhaps), but those huge stacks of DVDs and CDs you see in your living room, give it 10 years and those will all be gone in place of a small blinking box next to your television.