Friday, April 29, 2011

Trends in Media Technology

As research for my dissertation, I found myself in consumer electronics store. In thinking on the issue of first sale in the digital age, I realized that I've been a little out of touch with content delivery systems as the consumer tends to interact with them. Working with computers and software is one of my hobbies, so I keep track of development, but I prefer building computers to buying them and use GNU/Linux operating systems as often as possible. As a result, my interactions with media are guided by a tinker's sensibilities. If I want to know how major media conglomerates want consumers to interact with media, I have to go the retail outlets where such things are sold, especially to those who do not want to tinker.

My goal was to take a good long look at content delivery: what channels are available for accessing media, how is that access controlled, and what are the capabilities of available platforms. I looked at devices for video, audio, and ebook content, as well as multi-purpose devices like tablets. While I have no intention of giving any in-depth product reviews, there are some general trends that give me pause when considering the manufacturer's expectations.

I suppose the most striking examples can be found in the explosion of set-top boxes, devices designed to connect to televisions for the purposes of delivering digital content. Most of these devices purport to solve a space-shifting problem; allowing consumers to view content on their televisions that they can normally only view on their computers. However, they must do so in such a way as to appease content owners. The website Hulu provides a useful example here. One can navigate to Hulu to watch a wide variety of streaming content. Nothing is saved to the user's hard drive; Hulu just provides a portal, and content is broken up by advertisements, much as it is on cable or satellite television services. Nevertheless, content providers were not happy with the possibility that some users were able to access Hulu from the web browser built into the Playstation 3's software, so in 2009, Hulu began blocking the PS3 browser from accessing the site. Eventually, a compromise was reached when Hulu began offering a paid subscription service; subscribers were then able to access Hulu from the PS3's. Free users were left out of the loop.

Now, one might claim that there is nothing going on here beyond providing a reason to pay for something one could otherwise get for free. On the other hand, in order to create that reason, a device's function had to be impaired. The PS3 did not gain any new functionality as a result. Instead, some functionality was removed and effectively held for ransom.

The trend continues with set-top boxes, thought perhaps it might only be noticed by those with some technical background. To be clear, there is nothing in a set-top box that cannot be found in a computer. For all intents and purposes, such devices are computers, or at least stripped down computers. The main component lacking is a hard drive of some kind. The majority of set-top boxes serve as vehicles for consolidating available content from multiple services. To put it another way, the set-top box is one more thing to purchase so that one can access content for which one already pays. Interestingly, such a device already exists in the form of the personal computer. The important difference is that the set-top box does not facilitate storing media libraries for later viewing, and the operating system only allows the installation of approved applications. In some cases, the price point is not much lower than purchasing a computer with similar hardware specifications (with the addition of a hard drive).

When I ask myself why offer such a device, rather than a more capable one, the most ready answers have to do with control over content. With a fully functional home theater pc, one can archive content, view that content with one's chosen applications, and still access streaming content. The user then has a great deal of control over how he or she engages with media, control that is lost in the stripped down set-top boxes. At the end of the day, control seems to be the valuable thing, and the only way to maintain control is to marginalize more capable devices. To be sure, there is a market for HTPC's; but such devices did not make their way into consumer electronics retailers. Instead, what one does find is a device that is, in some cases, no less expensive, but much less capable.

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