On the Edge of Another Cultural Shift?

I’m old enough to remember the shift to digital media when it was still fought tooth and nail by the RIAA. I think if we dug in a box or two, I could find Thrack’s old minidisk player from high school, actually. I remember “mp3 is not a crime” and the fear-driven drafting of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

I also remember when the first real change in attitude happened.  When digital music became mainstream, and suddenly everyone had an iPod. When everything was marketed as mp3 compatible, including random hardware.  (Yep, that modem is totally mp3 compatible and they want you to know it, that’s why they slapped a sticker on it!)  I want to believe we are approaching another big shift, this time about video, but I don’t know if it can happen the same way it did before.

I get the feeling that our use of digital video is still niche, when I consider that most households don’t have their TVs connected to a computer (excluding consoles).  Our current home setup is such that almost everything involves the main PC.  All of Thrack’s Steam games are played on the couch, with mouse and keyboard atop a lapboard.  All our videos, movies, tv series are controlled and viewed through Windows Media Center, and Thrack spends a significant amount of time tinkering to make sure everything interfaces and plays properly.  We almost never watch live TV anymore (we watched a show as it was playing last night and it felt strange), because all it takes to turn the computer into a DVR is a tuner card and some tech-savvy.  And it’s been years since we kept our DVDs and Blu-rays on a shelf to peruse and watch; it’s taken ages to do, but we’ve ripped and encoded all of our movies to the PC, and put the original disks in storage.  It’s nice to have everything you may care to watch available at the press of a button, and even better when you don’t have to navigate the ads and crap that are packed on the discs you buy.

The plug-ins and programs we’ve experimented with work wonders at making it intuitive and quick to find all your data.  Want to watch a TV series that you have encoded and stored on your hard drive (or server)?  Or have you decided to do a movie marathon over a weekend?  Media Browser has great nested folder functionality.  Arrow over to your James Bond folder, and there they all are, sorted as you like with XML tags.  Your music and photographs can be accessed easily and quickly.  If you don’t want to deal with making your computer into a DVR, there is a nice Boxee plug-in that gives you access to a number of shows that are available through online streaming.  Even the default setup has “Internet TV” which while it is lacking in lots of variety (which I’ll discuss later) can still be super handy.  We ditched our cable over a year ago, but I want to watch the Rachel Maddow Show, it’s available there.  Media Center also has the best Netflix interface, with full functionality, especially if you have a full keyboard aid in searching for content.

Windows Media Center, when customized, really can encompass lots of functionality within a slick wrapper that is as of yet, still fairly unique.  Even before the overly hyped announcement for Google TV, there have been half-hearted forays into set-top box marketing (e.g. freestanding Boxee boxes, Apple TV, etc.).  But the functionality still fails to be a single solution for what people use because so many of the companies involved don’t just want to sell you a unit that accesses content, they want to sell you that content.  Even those not basing their business model on directly controlling how you access your content are strongly wedded to older ideas of cable subscription that are beginning to make less sense.

By ignoring those of us that have already abandoned our cable or satellite content, the content providers that refuse alternate avenues for accessing their video are not making prudent business decisions.  I am not going to go back to cable or get a satellite, so I am an untapped market for those who are afraid of digital distribution.  If they were to make their information available through avenues like the Internet TV portion of Media Center or another common provider with limited advertising, they would make more money than they lose.  Television shows are short enough and at a low enough bitrate that smart advertising can more than offset the cost of promoting your content, and may lead someone to pick up the show on DVD or Blu-ray.

I worry also that the greater shift we’re seeing in the marketing of devices that connect to your PC is focused in the wrong direction: streaming.  While that is and should be an integral part of the long-term plan for entertainment media, I think it’s a mistake to fear digital copies of film and television (as it was with music).  But the problem may be that the MPAA is smarter than the RIAA, or at least, they learned from the music business’s mistakes.  While I feel that consumers will likely always have some desire to purchase physical media, I feel that like music, people will grow more comfortable with viewing video from digital files.  Large amounts of storage are inexpensive and encoded video files (even at high-definition resolutions) do not take up a prohibitive amount of space.  It is simply more realistic now for individuals to encode and store their film and television collections, if only it was a more user-friendly process.  However, there is still a bit of legal tangle, tied up with that wonderfully flawed piece of legislation, the DMCA: encryption.

By the time the music industry was aggressively pursuing those who broke the encryption on audio files, there was already such a large history of individual doing so that it was far less enforceable.  In addition, the pursuit of legal actions by the RIAA was so ham-fisted that it served to further push public sentiment in favor of a more fair-use approach.  Subsequent law suits and case law essentially nullified the provisions prohibiting use of your own purchased media.  The MPAA certainly has been far more careful to ensure that they protect their legal rights to control the format of the content they produce, and the legal precedent is much murkier than with audio files.  With early CSS cracker Jon Lech Johansen having been imprisoned for his role in breaking the DRM on DVDs, the precedent for aggressive enforcement is much stronger than with music.  And now while it is safe to decrypt and encode your own movies for backup, from my understanding, it is still technically illegal as the provisions in law are still in force.  The line that seems more clear is in development and distribution of software that breaks the encryption.  Commercial software developers are based outside the U.S. to avoid prosecution, and it will take a large software company daring to bring the easy functionality to ordinary consumers (and the inevitable lawsuit) for this to change.

What we really need is another iTunes explosion, a single button as you slide in a DVD that will make the file compatible with your iPod Touch or iPhone before people start moving in this direction.  However, Apple doesn’t want to do this for two reasons: avoidance of a lawsuit and their own current business model.  When given the option of a consumer who has already bought a movie having the ability to create a digital copy for free and forcing that consumer to buy the movie again through their service, they will choose the option that nets them a sale.  So what we need is another iTunes that isn’t iTunes.  Are were there yet?

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