Exploring Digital Distribution Part 1: The Nature of the Beast

In this multi-part article on Digital Distribution, we will explore various aspects of the digital distribution model along with successes, failures and speculate on the future of this model based on current and past trends. This series will be primarily aimed at video gaming and media such as film and television.

Every journey begins with a first step. In the first of several articles on Digital Distribution, we will start with documenting an understanding about what Digital Distribution is – using today’s real world examples. We will try to keep the hyperbole and conjecture to a minimum.

Digital Distribution is not a new concept. It goes by many other names – virtual ownership, licensed for use, streaming video, pay to play and sometimes it’s just called “service” (prefixed by WHAT it provides).

You’ve probably been experiencing Digital Distribution for decades – also known as Cable Television (although the term “digital” may not be as appropriate, depending on how far you go back).

Chances are likely you’ve experienced another form of Digital Distribution too – known as AM/FM Radio. Pretty much every car on the planet has a radio and in the last century, radio has been (and continues to be – to a lesser extend) the most recognizable means of Digital Distribution.

In its simplest form – Digital Distribution is about the removal of the distribution of a physical product in favor of providing the content in a non-physical means.

For decades, the general population has been accepting of early forms of Digital Distribution – cable television and radio, despite the fact that the content provided by these services may not be available in a physical medium. If you heard The Ballad of Davey Crockett on the radio, you could go purchase the song on a vinyl record and play it anytime you liked. However, if you wanted to watch that episode of Bewitched where Uncle Arthur turned Darin in a mule – well, you had to wait for a rerun.

With the advent of home video, the population began purchasing their favorite movies and television shows, giving them what might be considered “early TiVo”; that is, the ability to time shift their content to their schedule and desire to watch. Soon, the “rental” market came to us in the form of mom and pop shops, Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and of course – rentals by mail with Netflix.

Rental allowed the market to watch pretty much what they wanted – when they wanted it. Ownership started becoming more important to people and the “rental window protection” system (where new movies cost $100+ each to ensure rental companies made money before the “general populace” could afford them) collapsed largely thanks to cheaper to manufacture and own media like DVDs. Some folks were still happy to never own a movie and rent a couple of flicks a week – others started building up extensive libraries of their favorite content. What was important to note here is that price and availability drove the “ownership” market – not necessarily the quality of the content.

While all this was going on, video gaming stayed pretty true to its roots. Sure, rentals of video games were available early on and their media changed from expensive bulky cartridges to cheaper optical disc-based mediums. But overall, pricing, availability and the overall market stayed constant – there was certainly no shift from $100+ games to $14.99 games. Gaming has been (until recent times) a very fixed price well-oiled machine, but there are many things that threaten this machine and we’ll get to this in future articles.

Music continued down its own path; radio continued to be the most popular medium of music consumption and audio cassettes (then CDs) continued to provide a means for “play on demand” consumers to get their fill. Music itself is a fascinating look at consumerism – one we will explore further in later articles.

Electronic distribution requires a couple of things – an adequate delivery mechanism (airwaves for example) and a means to accept and use the content (radio, TV). To be successful, there are many other factors that come into play (we’ll discuss this in another article). But, the overall key to success is the easy/cheap accessibility of both the mechanism and the means – preferably an established paradigm with the largest reaching audience possible.

Modern day Digital Distribution is largely considered as content being delivered by the internet (which by the way, is really by and large your cable or phone company – keep that in mind). Gaming, music, television, movies and other forms of “entertainment” including porn have taken up residence in the Digital Distribution domain.

One of the most important factors about Digital Distribution we really haven’t discussed yet is the concept of “ownership”. We need to flesh that out to an acceptable degree if we’re going to use the concept as a standard across these articles.

What exactly is “ownership”? In reality, we own very little. Nearly everything digital or electronic in nature comes with a “no ownership” string attached to it. Even our own government has stopped us from true “ownership” via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (a fact few really seem to understand – we’ll talk about this more later).

What do we “own”? Our home? Not if you’re paying a mortgage. Our cars? Not if you’re paying a bank note. Music CDs? You can do whatever you want with the disc itself – but what’s on it certainly doesn’t belong to you. DVDs? Absolutely not (at least in the United States); the Don’t Pirate This Disc warning you couldn’t skip when the disc booted up should have told you that. What about our video games? Nope – you may own the disc/cartridge – but what’s on it is NOT yours to use as you please. Your Xbox? PS3? Nada – you aren’t allowed to crack that case open and do anything to the contents. What about your TV? You own the TV, but anything outside of a home movie you shot (in your own home entirely of your own content and your own consenting friends and family members) belongs to someone else. That iPod you think you own doesn’t really belong to you either – or that iPad.

The good news is – you still have the shirt on your back. So far they haven’t figured out how to “license” clothing or fit a EULA on the backside of the tag in the back.

So – we’re clear now. You really don’t own anything. Since you don’t, there really shouldn’t be much resistance to Digital Distribution taking over as the ipso defacto format of delivering our entertainment, news and information. Right?

Yet despite this fact, many people (including myself) are vehemently against the replacement of traditional delivery formats exclusively with Digital Distribution. On the flip side, content providers simply cannot wait to pull the trigger on Digital Distribution – because in the end, the benefits far outweigh those afford to the consumer.

In our next article, we will discuss the positive aspects of Digital Distribution from both sides of the coin.

Continue to Part 2

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+