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2007-12-07 📌 The latest, greatest media technology: where next?

Tags 🏷 All 🏷 Personal 🏷 Music 🏷 Tech

Another in a series of largely-redundant "Denyer thinks this" position statements, though there may be some detours later in this one.

CD was a massive step up from tape. There are millions of CD players in circulation. Tape players are still useful for holding conversations or radio, despite the slow growth of MP3 player recorders and brief popularity of Minidisc recorders.

DVD was a massive step up from tape. There are millions of DVD players in circulation. VCRs are still useful for temporarily holding last night's TV, with some slow growth for DVD recorders from people who like to keep things longer.

MP3 is massively more convenient than rooting around for CDs. You can make MP3 files easily from CD. There are millions of MP3 players in circulation.

Wherefore SA-CD, DVD-Audio, Blu-ray and HD-DVD?

SACD and DVD-Audio appear to have sunk without trace. CD is good enough and lots of people only get them to make MP3s from these days anyway. MP3 is good enough for many.

HD-DVD is cheaper to produce than Blu-ray, and has the support of adult entertainment industries. There's still a fair chance it won't have any major impact because, as with CD, DVD is good enough. Heck, MPEG-4 is good enough for many and buildings won't magically get larger to squeeze in huge TVs either.

Furthermore, we're now at a point where half a century of music and cinema is in circulation. Most of it available very cheaply a year or two after release, if it was at all popular at the time. We also have accessible trading posts such as Amazon Marketplace and eBay, and all of this is discounting the involvement of the internet as a medium for distribution of data, rather than just ease of purchasing physical media.

It's not hard to see why corporations such as Disney are trying to indefinitely extend copyright, is it? They don't have any new ideas. Matched against this, people increasingly expect content to be freely — and not always illicitly — available online.

The situation's mirrored in other industries. The quality of software that's freely and legally available is improving and becoming far more known to the general public. There are fewer worthwhile new features to be added to software, phones or games consoles. Elsewhere in the tech world, DVD players will hit the £10 mark this Christmas. And games manufacturers, like film-makers, have run out of ideas.

My prediction is that Blu-ray will be the also-ran in the modern VHS/Betamax stand-off, helped in no small part by Sony's handling of the PS3 and by HD-DVD having recognition factor: the word DVD in its name. Though it doesn't really matter which wins; they use the same codecs, players won't lose the ability to play DVD, and the market for the players will be far more easily established (they just have to get cheap enough) than for releases on the format (enough DVD players have to die and be replaced, or be bought by first-time buyers.)

Copyright holders will keep trying to extend ownership of material created by people who're long-dead, but there's a good chance prices will fall into line with what consumers will accept as more content becomes available — even now the situation is that a wealth of films and albums are available for five quid or under, less if you shop around or avail yourself of second-hand channels.

But I think "new" content will continue to attract enough interest to finance a decent amount of production, technology will bring production costs down — and, since it's already easier for people to find things that interest them as well as for news of fads to spread, the slow-moving traditional content industries will face competition from smaller enterprises as well as their own back-catalogues.

Scrying further forwards, my crystal ball predicts huge legal battles when it becomes straightforward to replace actors and sets with computer simulations (have the evening news read by Neville Chamberlain and signed by Chaplin, if you like — public domain historical characters — or the more obvious application, favourite-celebrity porn.) Will the possibility to translate between languages nearly instantly whilst preserving greater degree of cultural context be a real-life Babelfish, bringing more arguments by removing barriers to communication, and how close to sentient will the translation software have to be to provide that cultural context? Will the human race ever be deranged enough to wire its nervous system directly into computer systems, and will it survive long enough to be able to backup individuals, solve energy needs and usher in the Culture of Iain Banks' science fiction?

The last one's far-fetched, but in other respects the future is progressing:

In the same way no government really dares enforce that people not record TV shows or trancode their CD collections to MP3, I think the future is more likely to be driven by people than further incremental impovements in technology. Understanding (and publicity) is growing that material such as early Disney or Beatles recordings should soon be losing the artificial protection the rights-holders have held onto with tooth and claw, with Paul McCartney and others getting less and less sympathy for trying to change the rules. People, in addition to caring less about copyright as a construct, are actually beginning to get annoyed.

Market penetration is such that ordinary consumers are seeing the downsides of locked content (incompatible formats, collections disappearing with hardware failure, Microsoft abandoning its PlaysForSure customers.) There's a current push from EMI to offer consumers greater transparency with DRM-free music, via Amazon and iTunes. I expect this to be a success, as it has for smaller online stores such as Audio Lunchbox who've had the support of smaller labels for a long time.

Conversely, some are deciding it's worth a few bucks a month to have a large ready-made collection online and not own any files or physical media. But the deals are being hashed out to become more favourable: without resaleable media people expect cheap, and without media or continued use people expect cheap and lots of choice/convenience. Unencumbered media will probably win out over renting or pay-per-play, because there's always an illicit alternative to the latter options, but it might maintain enough of a customer base to be viable — as a legal form of preview as much as a library.

The trick (which is obvious, but people continue to hope and push for more profitable outcomes) is that the legal option needs to be at least as convenient and easy to use as the illicit channels, and inexpensive enough to feel like a bargain when weighed against not having the physical media — which might get people out of the habit of buying the two good tracks from an album on iTunes and opting to buy entire albums at enough of a markdown compared to the cost of a CD.

Memo to self, people-watching:

Memo to self, 2: investigate security issues surrounding MediaWiki, do a test install and figure out how best to integrate into the content rectangle of an existing site design.

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