Downloading the future

I’ve long been a bit of a sceptic about the likelihood of downloading becoming the dominant channel of media distribution. Try as I might, I can’t get over that feeling of having something in my hand in return for the money I’ve just paid out, something to show for that dent in my bank balance.

I don’t mind if it takes a few days, so ordering online, paying the money and then having to wait for two or three days for the DVD or CD to wend its way from Jersey and land on my doormat. At least at the end of the purchasing process I had something real, something tangible, something physical to show for it. And as long as I knew where I put it, then I knew it was in my possession – it wasn’t going to magically disappear.

Compare this with downloading until relatively recent times. Music and films were protected by digital rights management systems (DRM) systems that usually required a quick “check with base” validation to ensure that it hadn’t been copied and pirated off to another machine. Sounds all well and good, but … what happens if “base” suddenly disappeared? A lot of those early online music and film sellers have folded, and when their DRM database shuts down so does your ownership of the music. All of a sudden it’s clear that you paid retail prices for just an extended, unspecified rental instead.

For this reason I bought almost no download media from the Apple iTunes Store until very recently: it was only when the switch to the non-DRM iTunes Plus format was announced in January that I finally had the confidence in the asset to decide to buy an entire album of music rather than the odd track.

Plus of course you need a fast broadband connection to download the content you’ve just bought. For some reason, the connections to the iTunes Store has been painfully slow in the evenings over the last month, taking me right back to dial-up times, needing over an hour to download the tracks comprising a single album. And then once you had the downloaded files, you had to have increasingly massive hard disc storage to keep everything on.

All of this needed to be sorted before downloads would become a viable mainstream option, and that took time. In fact there’s a nice conspiracy theory that says the only reason Microsoft backed HD-DVD (the doomed high-definition next generation disc format) in its battle against Blu-Ray was to buy exactly that time, so that both formats would be antiquated by the time the battle was resolved and Microsoft could then corner the market with people using their PC operating system to handle all the downloaded media they would be buying by then.

But okay, generally speaking – DRM problems are falling away, connection speeds increasing and the standard size of hard discs now approaching half a terabyte, so am I a convert to downloading these days and joining the 21st century at last? Well … Yes. A bit.

I still obsess about backing up the downloaded files, convinced that my system is going to crash and leave me without the files I paid hard money for. SO I back up the files to memory stick … And then, when there’s enough of them, I burn them on to DVD as well. And this is all on top of the iTunes Store which remembers your purchased files and will let you re-download them later on if anything happens to them. All of which I find a bit fiddly and also just a touch stressful.

But on the plus side … All that physical media really does pile up. I don’t have a very big flat and frankly it’s stuffed full of CDs, books and DVDs. It would be a delight to be able to transfer all of this to a handheld unit – a super-iPod – and have it all at your fingertips all the time and be able to clear out the cases of discs and boxes of books to a storage unit. Then we really are living in the era of Star Trek with its handheld tricorders offering up any piece of media at the press of a button.

Yes, I’d love that – I remember the excitement I had of my original iPod which I transferred dozens of CDs down to, and the realisation that I could have this music with me, all the time, in a unit smaller than a packet of cigarettes.

But at the same time, I have to confess that I prefer the security of knowing that all those boxes of discs and books are physically around somewhere, even if it’s in a remote storage unit. Just in case. At least until I forget all about them and let my 20th century hang-ups fade from memory into the mists of time.


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