Thursday, October 13, 2005

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Yeah, people have been predicting a video IPod for over a year. I remember Microsoft announcing they were developing a similar device way back when the original IPod became a recognized success, and recall that Jobs pooh-poohed the very idea. Now he's doing it, and beating MS to the punch.

So that's not really news. What IS news, to me, is the distribution deal with ABC/Disney/Pixar. You'll be able to buy and download TV episodes, like "Lost", for $1.99 each, and watch them on your TV or IPod. That is HUGE. The episodes are available the day after they air, and as far as I can tell this is the first time a network has directly sold its content like this, ad-free.

Let me explain my own situation: I am a thief. I can't justify spending money on cable when I just watch one or two shows, so instead I periodically fire up Bit Torrent and grab what I'm looking for. (Currently watching "Lost" and "House"; will check out "The Colbert Report" next week.) The picture I get is far clearer than my crummy network reception, I can watch it whenever I want, and there are no commercials.

I would seriously consider buying these shows, just because I dislike doing illegal or quasi-legal things. $1.99 seems reasonable; an even better idea would be a "Season Pass," maybe like paying $30 up front for every episode. However, I'll only do it if I can have the same level of flexibility that Bit Torrented divx files give me today. Right now I can store the shows, transfer them to another computer, burn to CD for backup, and play the video on my TV through my Linux media box. It's a sweet setup, and I'm pessimistic that there will be a seamless way for me to get the content from iTunes to my TV screen. If so, though, I'll gladly put my money where my mouth is.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we've been over this territory before. Like many of you my age, I acquired more than a few MP3 files while at college. By exploring and finding what I wanted, I became an aficionado of electronic music and spend way more money on music now than I would have if I only heard music on commercial radio. At first the labels were extremely dumb about this; the problem is that they went after the users trying to access music digitally in order to protect their obsolete distribution system. To reiterate: the major music labels were addicted to stamping out CDs, wrapping them in saran, and selling them in Suncoast Music stores for 19.99 apiece. Once the technology was there, they should have investigated how digital music could cut their overhead and increase their profits. Instead, millions of people like me found their digital music the only way they could, illegally.

Eventually, Steve Jobs showed them the light. I am convinced that iTunes has done far, far more to curb music piracy than all of the legal assaults have. People just want to get what they're looking for, and most will gladly spend 99 cents to get something now than spend fifteen minutes trying to find it for free. Sure, there were other legit music services first, but it's easy to forget how revolutionary iTunes was: it's the first time you could actually download (as oppose to stream) a track that you could listen to as many times as you wanted, on multiple devices, and even burn to CD. Again, it's crucial that the legal option be easier than the illegal one, and nobody signed up for Rhapsody because they wanted to be able to take their music with them in the car, not just listening on headphones at their PC.

My theory is that Disney is being smart (hey, Eisner's gone, so why not?) and have learned their lessons from the music industry. Illegal downloads of TV shows and movies are growing, but have not yet reached the critical mass that Napster brought, so their best hope is to give people an easy way to legally get at Disney content before more people seek out the piracy networks.

There's a lot to look forward to with this announcement. I think that the combination of growing television DVD sales and digital delivery of content will revolutionize American television over the next five years. This could be a very good thing. Most simply put, the studios have discovered a way to make money without advertisers. I doubt we'll lose advertising all together, the industries are very strongly linked today and it will continue to exist in some form, but I'm optimistic that the power of ads will wane. This will happen because, first, fewer people will be seeing ads; between TiVo and season DVDs and video iPod, there will be plenty of ways to pay to see content, rather than advertisers paying to reach your eyes. Secondly, as studios' profits shift towards paying viewers, advertisers' slice of the pie will diminish, and some organizations might find it feasible to ditch ads altogether.

What will this mean for viewers like us? I see three hopeful outcomes. First, we will see more daring programming. Content transmitted via means other than over-the-air are not subject to FCC regulation and so content can match whatever the expected audience rather than the most-offended-denominator; see recent Comedy Central DVDs for an example of the difference. (Also, fewer/no advertisers means less chance of an offended group orchestrating a successful boycott; "No Southern Baptist will buy your show!" is less likely to get a response than "We will not buy any Kraft products until they stop advertising on your show!") Secondly, we will likely see higher quality shows. It's no coincidence that HBO routinely has the best programs. It isn't because they're allowed to swear; it's because they only need to focus on making the best products and trust viewers to find them, rather than worry about reaching a sufficiently large (and bland) audience to tempt advertisers. (You can already see this effect at work. Five years ago "Arrested Development" would have been long-canceled; today, DVD sales are strong enough to placate Fox into letting it continue despite dismal ratings.) Finally, we will shift to more of a British model of television. Think of the future digital delivery streams as being the BBC and legacy over-the-air as being ITV and you'll get an idea of what I think television will become.

(Just to clarify: by "digital" I just mean non-broadcast. Yes, HDTV is technically digital broadcast. Sorry for any confusion.)

Once again I find myself in awe of Apple and Jobs. This is actually a relatively new feeling for me. Because I'm bored and my Internet connection is currently down (I'm writing this Wednesday night), here's a capsule summary of my relationship with Apple.

Apples were some of the first computers I encountered. The very first I barely remember, just brief encounters with games early in childhood. Like many elementary schools, Neil had a computer lab filled with Apple II computers. I loved these things, and computer lab became one of my absolute favorite times in school. They let us pick out which programs we wanted to run, so it was basically free play with educational software; I still vividly remember my joy in playing Number Muncher, Oregon Trail and Lemonade Tycoon. Oh, and the sound it would make when booting up. Control - Open Apple - Reset. Bee-bee. Beep! Bzzz. And then it would start in all its glory. I got really into it, and remember even designing a pencil-and-paper game (sort of an early RPG, although I didn't know yet what that was) based on Number Muncher so I could keep playing.

Around third grade I started getting permission to spend time on a private computer in the office, away from the class. In retrospect this was probably an early attempt to do something with "gifted" students. All I knew was, I would occasionally have a chance to try and race to Oregon before I needed to go back to class.

It was around fifth grade, if I recall right, that we got an IBM computer at home. I'd previously enjoyed playing games on it at Dad's office, but once it entered our house I started playing around with BASIC and programming my own games on it. The Apple games began to seem less exciting compared to the commercial software I could get for the IBM and the games began to feel restrictive.

My opinion of Apple strongly soured when I entered junior high. Nicollet didn't have any Apples; they had a sleek modern lab filled with Macs. I hated them. There was nothing to DO with them besides word processing, drawing, and... well, that was it. I would find myself using the paint program to draw a map for the game I was working on back at home. I talked with the lab administrators but they didn't know how to load a programming language on them, or wouldn't tell me if they did. The more interested I became in computers and the more I began to identify as a programmer, the more contemptuous I became at these useless boxes.

It's important to remember that, back then, the conflict wasn't Microsoft/Apple; it was IBM/Apple. Sure, every IBM computer ran MS-DOS, but in these days before Windows 95, MS really didn't have a marketing presence and had a much lower brand profile. I learned to adopt the stereotypes that IBM computers were loose, hackable (in both senses), fun computers with tons of software; Macs were serene, pristine, and largely useless unless you were a graphic artist or wanted to run one of the 5 games that had been ported to it. I sneered at Macs and laid contempt on Mac users.

(Side note: Neal Stephenson speaks far more eloquently than me about the differences between operating systems, and how a person's choice in OS speaks about their personality and how they choose to engage with the world. It's out of print and fairly dated, but I strongly recommend picking up a copy of "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line" if this topic is even slightly interesting to you. It will blow your mind.)

After Windows 95 came out, my relationship with Microsoft steadily soured. I initially saw 95 as being too Mac-like; later, I just got mad that my old games didn't run right on it and the computer would crash for no reason, which I never saw on my old computers. I was particularly infuriated that, after it crashed, when you restarted the computer it would bring up a screen saying "You did not shut down your computer properly." I'm not a swearing person, but I would yell out loud at the PC, "YOU'RE the one who freaking crashed! Don't try and pin this on me! I hate you!" One night, I spent over an hour working on an emotionally draining and potentially life-changing email, just to see a Blue Screen of Death when I clicked "Send." The very next day, I got a copy of Linux and wiped Windows entirely from my drive.

Moving back to Apple: I felt more amused than anything when I heard that Jobs was returning. To me, it felt like the last gasp of a dying company, a Hail Mary before its inevitable defeat. When I re-aligned to Linux, I lose my old antagonism towards Apple. Different strokes for different folks, I'd think. I personally don't want to spend two thousand dollars on a pretty box that's great for video editing, but that's just me; if others want to do that, they should go for it. As Apple kept afloat, and even began reclaiming some lost ground, my stance softened even more. Any enemy of my enemy is my friend, I'd say, and we're all in this together against Microsoft.

(My reasons for hating Microsoft are manifold and vast, far beyond irritation at their crummy software crashing on me. A full enumeration of their evils will need to wait for a future post.)

I turned over to actually liking Apple once OS X was announced. It was a backdoor too my heart, since it's built on Unix and I do love Unix. And Aqua was beautiful; again, it's easy to forget how revolutionary it was at the time. Again, I didn't want to spend money on a new Apple computer and didn't really need any of their software, but they won my respect and I decided they were the good guys.

Sometimes I wonder if Jobs is as surprised as us at how digital music has become Apple's bread and butter. It's a revolutionary break from Apple's traditional business, but at the same time it's a natural jump and they've clearly proved the wisdom of their choice. My current situation is that I admire Apple from a distance. I occasionally buy music from iTunes (although I prefer bleep), but have yet to ever buy any Apple hardware. Who knows; the video iPod just might be my first.

1 comment:

  1. But CHRIS, don't you know that Google is the new Microsoft?!?!? I read it in the New York Times! Or Chicago Tribune! Apparently, they are a LARGE and SUCCESSFUL company! That's just the sort of company we HATES!!!!