the future of sitting around

September 17th, 2006

It’s 2006, and America is furiously nesting. The less often we have to leave the comfort of our overstuffed couches and our 5.1 surround-sound systems and HDTVs, the better. To this end, our technology and media companies are working overtime to allow us to couch-surf our way to morbid obesity; it won’t be long until the notion of visiting a physical store like Blockbuster or Target to rent or buy albums or movies will be as outdated as churning your own butter. The future of media is online and ultra-convenient.

Twenty years ago, sharing music or videos with friends and family was quite a pain; audio and VHS cassettes took as long to make a single copy as they did to watch, and the dubbing itself was a painstaking process. But today, with the advent of CD/DVD burners and iPods, downloadable digital media file formats such as mp3, combined with the rise in availability of high-speed Internet connections, media sharing has gotten much quicker and easier. For music, Internet users can visit online music shops like the iTunes Music Store to purchase downloadable singles or entire albums with a single click. Music fans can even opt to sign up for for music subscription services such as Napster and Yahoo Music; services which, for a monthly fee, allow access to thousands upon thousands of songs. The catch? If you stop paying your subscription fee, all the music goes away. So far the subscription-based model has not proven as successful as the iTunes purchase-based model — to date, iTunes has sold over a billion and a half songs. It turns out music lovers want to own their music, even if it is just a file on their hard drive.

Up until very recently, full-length TV shows or movies were difficult to find on the internet; to date, most internet video has been limited to smaller, shorter clips on video sharing sites such as the popular YouTube. However, Google and Apple have started to offer television shows for purchase and download at $1.99 a show, and Amazon has recently unveiled a new “Unboxed” service which allows customers to purchase or rent full-length movies over the Internet. But the catch here is that none of these services allow users to burn their purchased video to a DVD, so viewing the video is arttificially constrained to either watching on the computer (unfun!, as chances are your computer is not located in your living room), a Microsoft “Media Center” PC (expensive!) or via the tiny screen of a portable device (squinty!). Apple’s upcoming media center, codenamed “iTV” has perhaps the most potential; it wirelessly shifts your all movies and music from your PC or Mac to any television in the house, but it won’t be ready for market until early 2007.

Of course, not all music and video floating around on the Internet is legally purchased. Some media seekers instead opt to download “peer-to-peer” sharing programs like Limewire (PC), Acquisition (Mac), or BitTorrent (available for both PC and Mac), all of which use technology that allows users to share their songs or videos with a few thousand total strangers. BitTorrent in particular is ruthlessly efficient at data delivery; as the more people choose to join and a share in a “torrent” download, the faster everyone’s download goes — completely the opposite of what normally happens when thousands of users try to download the same file. And although BitTorrent started out as every movie studio’s nightmare, not every studio wishes it would go away, and instead, some are embracing it: Warner Brothers has recently announced plans to sell their movies using the BitTorrent protocol, and there are rumors that other studios may follow. One nerdly technical detail: most video floating around on the internet is in “DivX” format, which can only be played on your computer or via a special DivX-enabled DVD player, such as the inexpensive Philips DVP642 DVD player ($50 from Amazon).

At this point in the article, it should probably be noted that illegally downloading music or video is in fact illegal and comes with a potential price; files being publicly shared over the Internet are easily traced back to the users sharing them, and as such the Recording Industry Association of America (or the “RIAA”) has recently begun to set their lawyers loose on people who have been caught illegally sharing files. To date, the average cost of an out-of-court settlement with the RIAA has been about $3,000; a tidy sum of cash that could have been used to fill up a shopping cart full of used CDs several hundred times over.

However, as legitimate and legal options for media downloading begin to gain in viability, the convenience of easy, single-click purchases are likely to win out over the hassle and danger of black-market trading. So, get ready to put your feet up, grab the remote, and click “download”; in the very near future, your media will be coming to you.


NOTE: This article will be/was originally published in the alt-monthly “Local Buzz”, Oct. 2006. That’s why it’s written in a different “tone” than I usually use and curiously devoid of links. Links don’t translate well on paper.

One Response to “the future of sitting around”

  1. Jim says:

    We should all heed Weird Al’s warning: