Archive for March, 2012

Digitial vs. Disks

Tasha Robinson over at the AVClub writes about defending DVDs and their proliferating existence despite a general corporate ideology hellbent on getting rid of them, in favor of streaming and online downloads – in particular, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ ill-advised price move and failed secondary company geared to take care of the DVD-by-mail division. She links to a CNET article, here, which suggests that Netflix was attempting a bold move to strike early in destroying the physical media market, in essence forcing the switch by consumers.

What struck me about the CNET write-up was the rather disingenuous analogous claim that Apple killed floppies. I understand the metaphor – Apple struck early at a dying format before it was considered dying – but I don’t think he, CNET, and the proponents of such an idea understand history – or real history outside the manner in which we think about it. Malcolm Gladwell implied it strongly here, but history is not about crazy icons making ballsy decisions, but shrewd observers understanding general changing trends that naturally occur in progressive history. These observers/innovators understand social history, the broader sense of people’s changing tastes and ideas, instead of following titans and big names. In the case of Apple, Jobs was a keen insider (Gladwell also writes about his excitement over the first prototype of the mouse), always taking what was already circling the waters and making it accessible. While floppies were still around and used, so were flash drives, Zip Disks, CDs, early DVDs, and storage drives. He knew the floppy would die on its own with its limited capacity, and producing a computer without a floppy disc drive sparked outrage, sure, but not to the extent the CNET article implies, since Apple was such a small share of the market. It could afford the miss, save money, and bide its time.

Netflix mistakenly doesn’t have that freedom, at least not yet. John August agrees with Hastings about dropping DVDs; too bad no one else does, as shown by the Netflix fallout. The company does not have the under-the-radar corporate foothold like Apple did, and by forcing a change no one wanted or was ready for, was forced to pay the PR price. August, the CNET article, and even Robinson miss a fairly basic point; it has to do with the public’s accessibility over entertainment in general. It’s not that we want it now; we want whatever, whenever, now included. Let me put it like this:

I stream movies.

I also watch DVDs.

I also game, watch live TV, and go to movies, and read both books and ebooks. I do both, and roughly in equal measure, if one takes in consideration borrowing DVDs, Netflixing, Gamefying, and buying them. The switch may be inevitable, but the infrastructure is not in place, both in a physical one (streaming quality, bandwidth, caps on data usage, complicated ownership issues and online selection) and a consumer one (direct willingness to drop to streaming cold turkey). The former will be ready maybe in about 10 years, the latter in about… 25 years. I’m not being a Luddite here, I’m being realistic. And it’s not that people hate change, it’s people have to be ready for it, willing to pay for it, and able to troubleshoot it when that all fucks up for whatever reason.

John August in particular makes a dubious claim: “shiny discs are going to go away at some point, so why not now?” I suppose you could make the same argument for gas-powered cars, by the mere fact that fossil fuel is finite and the current course of action is globally unsustainable (which is ironic, considering he uses a climate change metaphor himself). But, again, the infrastructure is not in place physically (solar/electric stations across the country, selection, price) and consumer wise (willingness to switch, ability to manage repairs). Why not now? Because history, social history, deems it not ready. Hastings may be a “big man” as history is concerned, but all big men of history were only as functional as the time period warranted.

[Concerning piracy; iTunes already proved that music could combat it with a simple, intuitive setup, and the same thing with Steam; to imply there’s a straight-forward system in place that’s for film and TV is somewhat questionable, especially with Netflix losing streaming rights and the full extent of certain shows and movies spread across so many different formats. It’s purely inefficient and costly and limited. Too many choices and avenues exist to acquire content while media companies are struggling with copyrights, finances, and so on. Why should the consumer care? It’s their problem, and until they fix it, they’ll get there content the way they like without the BS.]

Are DVDs going to go away? Of course. But not fully until we have a distinct infrastructure in place to handle it, a simple, almost guaranteed method that when I click play on a streaming service, it plays in high quality video AND sound with no hiccups, that the selection is wide and varied and accessible anywhere in the house or on the road, and I can access the cool cover art and special features that the best DVDs have – and here’s the kicker – that all films, TV shows, and games can possess. A PS3 or XBox 360 owner likes the idea of gaming and watching movies on it and streaming with it; so does PC owners, and in time, TV owners. It’s hilarious that the hardware itself is distinctly ready for the transformation of accessibility but media companies and the software isn’t. It’s also fairly funny that film/TV viewers are complaining about this issue, but gamers aren’t (not as vigorously) since they have Steam, Origins, and ease to access discs. We at TMB really strive to think about entertainment outside the walls of strict media limits; if other people did the same, we could be solving this problem quicker than we have been so far.