Think Twice Before Buying Digital Content

Digital Content Locked Down

I wish there were a more natural way to say this, but buying digital content sucks, and for the last couple of months I’ve been getting regular email reminders as to just how bad the situation has gotten. For me, I started realizing the dream of a digital content library was nothing more than the fantasy of overly optimistic movie enthusiast when I lost access to three, Seven Samurai episodes that I purchased on Xbox Live. Then, over a year later, I could no longer access SimCity Deluxe and GoNinja HD because of a lack of iOS 10 support from their developers. And now, I get email reminders that Ultraviolet is shutting down, leaving me scrambling to retain the content that I “bought.” I hate digital content.

The Promise of Digital Lockers

I didn’t ever consider buying digital content until I began witnessing major corporations deploy digital lockers. For those of you aren’t familiar with the concept of a digital locker, it is something mainstream video distributors stumbled upon during their many efforts to stop online piracy. In the world of torrents and peer-to-peer sharing, digital lockers pose a unique threat to enforcing copyright laws by placing the shared files behind a landing page that requires a username and password. This login page approach is in contrast to the usual tactic of search-based, sharing sites that only need users to set up a profile before they start downloading files.

HackerEnforcement on search-based sites is pretty easy to execute. Officers enter bogus profile information, then begin uploading bait files that are tracked throughout the website, flagging those that download the tainted content. The addition of a credentials page made this tactic harder to deploy, as it became challenging for enforcers to acquire usernames and passwords without identifying themselves, locking them out of some of the largest media sharing libraries. While digital lockers largely remain a copyright enforcement nightmare, operating in the gray area where file sharing exists, the idea was co-opted by digital content distributors as their own content management tactic and deployed by services like Ultraviolet.

Ultraviolet is was the video industry’s major attempt at creating a digital locker, and also the first time I put my trust in a digital media management system that I thought would be around forever. From the outset, Ultraviolet had all the pedigree of a prize racehorse, major studio and retailer backing, high rate of consumer adoption, and for a brief moment, it looked as if the digital locker was moving to the forefront of legal ways to manage a content library. Everything was great.

The Perfect Management Solution

In an ideal world, these digital media companies would have merely fortified and scaled the digital locker concept they found in the depths of copyright oblivion, adding features like enterprise level encryption and single sign-on, and based on the marketing material, it seemed like that was the plan. Instead, companies produced a final product that was vastly different than its original concept, focusing on Digital Rights Management (DRM) and not content sharing. By concentrating on DRM, these systems became viewed as a way to restrict the movement of multimedia, and not a way to promote the secure, legal sharing of our favorite content.

For example, when Microsoft announced Xbox One, they dedicated a whole segment to how the system would only use digital media and immediately drew the ire of gamers who didn’t understand how they would let friends borrow games if there were no discs. Sony jokingly responded to Microsofts poorly presented value proposition with a video (see video) to capitalize on the backlash, which is super ironic considering they are the defacto kings of overly strict DRM systems and proprietary formats (I’m looking at you MiniDisc, Memory Stick, Betamax, and Universal Media Disc).

Regardless, it doesn’t seem to matter what messaging an organization deploys related to DRM systems, the value proposition never translates to consumer benefits, but instead reignites the fear of corporations adding one more aspect of segmentation to our already fractured digital existence.  Maybe that’s the part of purchasing digital content we get, that they don’t.

Segmentation

The over-application of DRM seems to be the icing on the crap cake that we call owning digital media. It’s sitting on top of layers of operating system and hardware variations, processor incompatibilities, screen size variances, and proprietary connections. All-in-all, the reason the digital experience is so horrible for the average consumer can be boiled down to one word – segmentation.

By dividing up the content and features we need among a variety of services, organizations are causing the demise of a system that could have easily benefited everyone, leaving customers to have to choose where to spend the limited about of disposable income they possess. And with customers so thinly spread between a variety of services, none of the services can reach a profitability level that can cover the cost of developing all these exclusive features and content.

The reason I chose to purchase the aforementioned digital content from Microsoft, Apple, and Ultraviolet, respectively, was because it seemed like I would be able to avoid the problems haunting the digital media purchase process by going with well-established players. I was wrong. Developers and companies still give up on platforms, licensing for content expires, and companies go under. If I can’t make digital content purchases work with companies of this size, I’m afraid the whole industry has no hope.

Feel free to let us know how you feel about the situation, or better yet, tell us your own horror story about purchasing digital media.

The Net Neutrality Paradox

Net Neutrality

Concept Explained…

White Board ExplanationFor those who aren’t as familiar with the topic of net neutrality as us hardcore techies, I’m going take a minute to summarize (in Layman’s terms) what it is, and why you should care about it. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably one of the millions of people in the world who access some kind of multimedia via the internet. If you subscribe to NetflixHulu, Amazon Prime, SpotifyApple MusicPandoraDirectv Now, or any other streaming subscription service, you fall into the category of people I’m addressing and should make sure to read this article in its entirety.

If you have one of the subscription streaming services mentioned above, you probably enjoy access to thousands of music and movie titles via an internet connection that’s provided by a cable or phone operator, and until now, that hasn’t been a problem. Since the inception of streaming services, these companies that have been happily providing internet connections to your homes while adhering to a simple principle called Net Neutrality.

The principle goes something like this, as long as you are paying for the broadband service they’ve been providing, whatever you decide to download via that connection is up to you, and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) won’t interfere with it. But more recently, the content consumers are streaming has inhibited the ability of those same companies to monetize their content, so now they’re lobbying the FCC to remove the rules that formalized the Net Neutrality principles in writing, enabling them to charge more for content coming through their pipelines that originates from competing services.

History Repeats Itself

Infinity Sign

You’ve probably been hearing a lot of techies trying to convince consumers that net neutrality needs to stay in place, and taken at face value, that argument would appear to be correct. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that the abolishment of Net Neutrality could be the best thing for those of us who choose to access our favorite media via the internet. Let me explain.

Due to the fact it’s much easier to change services and equipment between wireless carriers than it is switch between ISPs, the wireless industry has always moved faster than the “wired” industry, and it’s generally pretty safe to look toward them for indications of how strategy changes will affect markets. It’s a bit of a canary in a coal mine situation, which I’ll sure the wireless industry would prefer wasn’t the case, but never the less, here we are.

It wasn’t that long ago that conversations with wireless executives about unlimited data plans resulted in executives stating, with 100% confidence, they would never have to offer unlimited data plans to their customers. Less than five years later things have changed, with wireless agreements including unlimited talk, text, and data, in addition to offering consumers the choice between Netflix, Hulu, and HBO. And now, depending on with whom you sign on the dotted line, a whole range of extras are available because of the addition of a new point of competition.

Unlike with ISPs, wireless providers compete head-to-head in almost every region, and the result of “true competition” has benefited customer across the nation, as the average cost of wireless bills has lowered when compared to 5 years ago. The removal of net neutrality on the wired side of the business would create a point of competition between ISPs similarly to how unlimited data plans affected the wireless industry. This assertion isn’t made without merit, as I remember the days before unlimited wireless plans were everywhere, and cell phone service providers were picking and choosing which particular content to include as a part of “data free” streaming. Can you see the similarity?

The 4K Factor

The availability of Ultra High Definition (UHD or 4K) content will probably be the tipping point for all of this due to the amount of internet bandwidth it requires and the lack of ability for traditional cable providers to offer it. If imposed caps and limitations on streaming content to our homes remain in place (there’s already a 1TB cap), consumers with 4K HDTVs and streaming source content to match will quickly start looking for ISPs that aren’t tacking on extra charges for owning the latest equipment and wanting to take full advantage of its capabilities.

The delivery of 4K content has become a more significant point of emphasis now that HDTV manufacturers have been ushering retailers towards selling UHD televisions in higher proportions than 1080p sets, and the transmission of these signal puts an enormous amount of stress on an aging internet infrastructure that streaming providers like Netflix aren’t responsible for maintaining. We can argue about the fairness of this arrangement later, but for now, we’ve reached the core of the Net Neutrality dilemma.

As the amount of data used to deliver 4K content to homes increases, inevitably, consumers will realize their home internet service plans more closely resemble the restrictive wireless data plans of the past than the newer unlimited data plans of the future. This dilemma will force the cable industry to choose which strategy to pursue in the same manner as the aforementioned wireless carriers.

The Rub

On the one hand, cable and internet providers could leave home internet services and Net Neutrality as it stands, collecting overages whenever customers surpass their streaming limit, hoping they can hold on long enough to figure out their own content system.

On the other hand, they fight to abolish Net Neutrality, unleashing an immediate flurry of competition that will undoubtedly lead down a rabbit hole to including everything but the kitchen sink to maintain video subscribers. So what can they do?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and time will tell if any of us had the right answers.