As I was watching TV on my iPad last night, I was struck by two things:
- How far hardware and software have come over the last few years.
- How far media distribution still has to go.
Media distribution will be broken until it reaches one single and very simple objective: anyone should be able to watch or read anything at any time on almost any device. What's interesting about this objective is that it's 100% achievable today in terms of technology; it's media distribution that makes it laughably unrealistic.
As much as I like my iPad, I just don't find it all that useful because of the incredible lack of media options. First of all, I think we call agree that the iPad is designed primarily for media consumption rather than creation. Yes, you can do some creative things on the device, but for the most part, if you really want to make something, most of us are better off using our computers or cameras or whatever it is we use to create. But for media consumption — reading, watching video, and playing games — the iPad is fantastic.
In theory, anyway. In practice, it's hugely lacking. Rather than watching and reading the books and shows I'm interested in, I find myself having to pick from very limited selections carefully designed not cannibalize other revenue streams. A good example is my recent interest in Modern Family (the show which recently set a new standard in product placement and shilling, but which is a good show nonetheless). I got into the show very late in the season which means that I've missed about ten episodes, and there's no practical way for me to get caught up. In the year 2010, while surrounded by some of the most advanced devices on the planet and having massive amounts of bandwidth at my disposal, the only options I have available are:
- Set up my DVR and hope to catch some reruns. So far, this hasn't happened, and doesn't help me watch the series in order (which my obsessive nature dictates).
- Buy the entire series for $54.99 on iTunes. That's not a typo. $54.99. Of course, then I can only watch it on Apple devices, and I have to worry about authorizing future devices (which I'm already having trouble with because I apparently have too much Apple hardware). No thanks.
- Buy select episodes for $2.99 each on iTunes. (See previous bullet.)
- Go to ABC's website where they make it look like I can watch full episodes like the pilot, but I actually can't. Instead, I can only watch the same five episodes that are available on Hulu or their iPad application.
- Wait for the Blu-ray and pay way too much.
- Download the torrents for free and do anything I want with them.
Which options are missing?
- Watching any episode I want with a reasonable number of commercials. (The irony here is that I never watch commercials on TV thanks to my DVR, but I do watch them online, and don't have a problem with them as long as they're limited and tasteful.)
- Paying a reasonable price for past episodes ($0.99 for standard, $1.99 for HD, perhaps), and being able to watch them whenever and however I want.
Of course, there's no shortage of other problems when it comes to modern media distribution:
- Limited selection. Most of the books I want to read aren't available in digital format, or they aren't available at the same time as their paper counterparts. I therefore find it impossible to give up physical paper books entirely (no accident, I'm guessing).
- DRM. I don't mind DRM in theory (preventing people from freely distributing content they don't have the right to distribute), but DRM makes the entire experience of managing media so miserable that I believe it does more harm than good.
- Lock-in. In my opinion, the kind of lock-in you buy into with iTunes and related devices is just another form of DRM. In fact, it might actually be worse since it's device lock-in, and devices are much more expensive than media.
- Lack of centralization. Everyone has different partners, and terms and deals and loyalties are constantly shifting which means there's no central place to find and manage media.
To emphasize that last point, here are just some of the ways I currently consume digital media (books, video, and music):
- TV (mostly through the DVR or network streaming options).
- Amazon MP3s downloads.
- Amazon video on-demand.
- Audible.com (for audio books).
- iBooks store.
- Netflix (for physical media).
- Netflix for steaming (via PS3, Xbox, iPad, or my TV).
- Blockbuster (when I don't want to wait for Netflix, and streaming isn't an option).
- iTunes (as little as possible, but sometimes the only option).
- FiOS on-demand (pretty good experience, but terrible selection).
- Purchasing physical media and ripping it (probably the best experience ultimately since it provides the most options).
Regardless of where your preferences or loyalties lie, I think most of us can agree that digital media distribution is pretty broken, and since so many people's interests are at stake (content creators, content distributors, infrastructure providers, hardware manufacturers, and consumers), I don't see it getting much better anytime soon. In fact, I don't see it ever getting better until content creators take it upon themselves to lead the revolution.
Traditionally, content creators do only one thing: create content. They then hand it off to the distribution experts so they can get back to the important work of creating more content. Fair enough, but if that content isn't being distributed and consumed effectively and efficiently, content providers need to look for and insist on alternatives.
Since it's usually not realistic for content creators to get into the business of distribution and sales themselves, they need to start working with partners who enable more effective media distribution rather than partners whose interests lie in restricting distribution and protecting woefully obsolete business models. They need to support the advertising and distribution networks who are in the business of giving consumers what they want rather than what they want consumers to have.
It's not enough for consumers to insist on it. The fact that Comedy Central took The Daily Show and The Colbert Report off Hulu because too many people were watching it online rather than on TV has shown us that consumers don't always have as much power as we'd like to believe. As long as there are no better options available, consumers will, for the most part, take what they can get. I believe the real revolution can only come from one place: the content creators themselves. All the technology and tools are available for content creators and their partners to reach their audiences in new, better, and more effective ways, so if you create books, magazines, articles, films, games, shows, stories, etc., right now is the perfect time to take a chance and to revolutionize not just media, but our culture, as well.