Essays on Technology and Culture

The Problem of Content as an Ecosystem

On episode 65 of “Amplified” Dan Benjamin and Jim Dalrymple had an interesting conversation about the relationship we have with the content we consume and the platforms we consume it on. As we move into consuming our media digitally, our content is simultaneously becoming locked into platforms. [1] Media content, no matter how we choose to access it, has become a feature of a software and hardware ecosystem rather than a thing of its own. When you commit to Apple, for example, you’re typically committing to buying your media from iTunes, at least if you want to have it on all your Apple devices with the least amount of pain. It’s the same if you buy an Amazon Kindle, or a device built around Google Play. The media library is a feature of the product.

This also functions as a form of lock-in, though it’s not a particularly secure lock in many cases. If you’re buying music, whether from iTunes, Amazon, or any other legitimate music download service, DRM is a thing of the past. Your iTunes and Amazon files will play on almost anything you throw them at. Video content is still locked down with DRM, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time before TV and movie studios wise up in the way the recording industry has and take the locks off. DRM is also a problem in eBooks that I hope will be temporary as well. Amazon has a more subtle lock-in strategy with their use of the MOBI format, and eschewing the ePub standard. Even if the publishing industry were to give up DRM, I can’t see Amazon embracing the ePub format on Kindles. They have too much to lose.

These are issues you simply do not have to worry about for physical media. A CD will play in every CD player, a DVD in every DVD player, and so on. You might have a hard time copying it or converting it to digital file, but you can take the physical copy and play it anywhere, regardless of the brand of hardware you’re using it on. If a Sony DVD player could only play back discs made by Sony, the format would never have caught on. This only matters, however, if you’re buying content for keeps. The big growth in the content space is now in streaming subscription services.

There’s dozens of music and video streaming services, some linked to specific platforms and some available on multiple. Netflix, for example, is available on pretty much every piece of hardware you can buy and hook up to a display. A Netflix subscription is an easy way to guarantee that you can get your content anywhere there’s an Internet connection, but Netflix doesn’t have everything. That’s where the problems start. Now that a content library has become a feature of an ecosystem, the specific content varies depending on who we’re asking to provide it. The content of different studios, networks, and production companies is accessible only through certain partnership deals, exclusive contracts, and revenue sharing agreements that make it so that you either need to buy into more than one subscription service, or illegally download anything you’re missing.

I’ve long eyed subscription streaming, at least for music, warily. With something as typically ephemeral as TV and movies, a subscription streaming service makes sense in the same way a cable TV subscription made sense in the 90s. But, for music? Why pay for something you can’t keep? Of course, I also look at music streaming with the eye of a music fan and as a collector (albeit a collector who operates increasingly in a digital world). When I get something I plan to use more than once, I expect to do it on my terms, which is why I buy music, often from iTunes. My view, it seems, is becoming the minority.

If we’re accessing music, movies, TV shows, and even books through locked-in ecosystems, how does this change the relation we have with that media? The big worry I have is that none of these services have everything. There’s a TV commercial from around 1999–2000 that predicted the ability to watch any movie at any time. This was in the days before YouTube, or even widespread access to broadband. What’s hampered the utopian vision is the tying of content to specific services and platforms. How it will shake out, I can’t say, but as long as people have to either lock themselves into an ecosystem, or find the particular subscription streaming service that has the particular content they want, frustration will win out more often than not.

What worries me isn’t lock-in via DRM. That will end in time. What worries me is that creative work that demands to be viewed on its own merits, and accessible by the largest audience possible, runs the risk of being locked to a specific piece of hardware, or a specific paid service, for eternity. Why? Because exclusivity is more valuable to the company that owns the work than the work is to either the creator or the audience. In the case of the creator, hopefully it’s lucrative enough to keep them making work, but for the audience… what good is access to a vast library if none of it is valuable?

  1. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to talk mostly about legally-acquired content. Illegal downloads are certainly a topic of discussion, but they are—by nature—more open, but not quite ubiquitous.  ↩