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Summary:

Our future is wireless at high speeds anywhere we’d like. This may be a decade away and if carriers make wireless data truly unlimited this will be a reality, but it scares me for a few reasons that simply can’t be fixed by technology.

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Apple’s recent media event solidified what we all knew was coming: Rentals and non-local storage is the future of our digital content. Ask any teenager if they’d rather watch TV or YouTube and they’ll answer Google’s on-demand free service full of people doing stuff on video is their preferred entertainment. Give that teen an iPhone or iPad and YouTube is where they’ll go first. It’s appealing to have content that’s not stored locally streamed instantly and Apple/Google aren’t the only companies leading this initiative.

Right now, most of the content you own is stored locally on our Macs or iOS devices. This content includes apps, books, videos, music and documents. The cutting edge techies have embraced Gmail, Google Docs and cloud services like DropBox and Box.net. The only thing keeping you from storing movies in the cloud and viewing those on your iPad is Internet speed. What if I told you the copy of Finding Nemo you bought from iTunes can be streamed instantly to any Apple device no matter where you were in the world — a café, driving down the interstate or in the London tube? It’s almost here.

Our future is wireless at speeds that meet what we have in our homes. This may be a decade away and if carriers make wireless data truly unlimited this will be a reality, but it scares me for a few very obvious reasons that simply can’t be fixed by technology.

Corporate Control of Our Data

Control by a single entity is my main fear. Cloud storage isn’t democratized and it isn’t open. Currently, when you buy something, it’s stored, owned and managed by the company you purchased it from. Apple has maintained DRM in its iTunes Store since 2003. I’ve authorized files that I bought the day Apple’s store opened and they still play on any one of my Apple devices. If I lose that song, Apple can allow me to re-download it after some back and forth with its support team. My apps, movies, music and music videos are locked to its devices. The same goes with Amazon’s Kindle platform. Buying a book from Amazon’s Kindle Store means that file is locked to its software and hardware. If it ever abandons Kindle, your books are useless. There’s no reason for either of these companies to do this, but people who bought music from stores that are now defunct are in a bit of a pickle with the content.

An example of a failed system is Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM. A number of music stores and MP3 players adopted this, but most of those stores and hardware companies have shifted directions or gone out of business. The hundreds you spent on music may be playable right now but no one can guarantee you’ll be able to in 10 years.

Let’s simply alter my argument a bit and change the delivery of this content from DRMed files stored on your hard drive to music stored on the cloud operated by Napster or Real’s Rhapsody Store. If those services go away, the music you “own” is no longer playable…ever. Going all in on a service that is cloud based is risky business. The same goes for content stored on Google Docs, Flickr, MobileMe and YouTube. If you’re not keeping hard copies of your content uploaded to these services, you’re a fool. Hard drives are cheap. Store your content and don’t rely on these web services that have been around for less than a few years to store your content forever. Personally, I use Backupify.com to keep secondary backups of all my data from Gmail, Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and WordPress. I download copies from Backupify once a month to my hard drive.

Remember when Amazon ironically pulled copies of 1984 from Kindle devices without warning? Cloud based companies can do this. They might give you a warning but no one can come into your house and take a book. Unless what you’re storing is illegal or your hard drives are compromised, the data in your home and on your computer is safe for years as long as you’re careful. Keeping a backup of your computers on an external drive at home and a duplicate at your office is good enough and I suggest anyone do that no matter how insignificant the data is. If you store photos, music and documents on your computer, back it up off-site — no exceptions.

Apple is playing it safe with its new Apple TV. Allowing us to stream rented movies and TV shows is a good way to get us comfortable with streaming content. You can still buy the same content on your iOS and Mac devices and stream those to the Apple TV but, if you’re on a TV browsing iTunes, the only option is to rent the content.

It won’t be like this forever. Soon, streaming will be offered as a more convenient and less expensive option for us. Apple and other companies will present products where you can hit play on anything you’ve ever purchased and it starts instantly as long as you have an Internet connection from your phone, tablet and computer. Invite a friend to borrow your copy of Braveheart and they can watch it as well. This convenience will not be without problems.

In Apple We Trust

Apple is on top right now. Its mobile devices are envied by every CE company, but this won’t be the reality forever. I own 300 iOS apps, 1,200 movies, 200 music videos and over 18,000 songs where over 5,000 of those songs were purchased in iTunes. I’ve invested thousands of dollars in Apple. Thanks to limited kindness of the music industry, my music is now DRM free in iTunes Plus format so it can be played on any other MP3 player, but the other content is stuck. When Apple’s devices aren’t the best and someone else takes over, I’ll be stuck to the Apple ecosystem. The same can be said for Mac software when you make the switch to Windows 7 (for whatever reason) but it’s a reality we all need to deal with.

When you want to switch to a cooler and better mobile platform, will you be okay with giving up the thousands spent on DRMed content that can’t be played on the new device? If Apple remains the dominant leader for the next 20 years, can we trust it to be kind to its loyal fans who trust when we buy a movie stored exclusively on Apple’s cloud to always be playable and never be pulled, removed or changed? Will my copy of Braveheart always work no matter where I am or will I be greeted with an error when I’m in China with, “this movie is not licensed to be played in your region.” Where the hard copy stored on my iPad would play just fine no matter where I was? We’ll see. Apple is not a movie studio so its hands are tied when it comes to content and how that content plays just as much as any other company when it comes to music and movies.

The White Album Argument

Maybe I’m not seeing the big picture. There’s another side to this where if you ask anyone over the age of 50 how many times they’ve bought The Beatles’ White Album and they won’t be able to keep count. There was record, 8-track, tape, cassette and maybe even mini-disk. They probably also bought it in CD form the first, second and third time it was remastered. You may have bought this album eight times since it was first available in record stores.

Perhaps that’s how it’s going to be when it comes to our digital music. Perhaps, you’ll buy the same content over and over again well into your old age because there would have been a few music services between 2000 and 2050. On my 70th birthday, I may lament to my grandkids that I spent thousands on music in iTunes and they’ll laugh because music is like $20 a song now and I shouldn’t be complaining that it cost 99 cents back then.

Planning for the Future

Whatever happens next, consumers are in control. We decide with our cold hard cash. We already voted that digital is the future since iTunes sales will pass the sales of physical CDs very soon, but if we go all-in on cloud content trusting in the corporations storing and delivering it, the world may shift immensely and when you take a vacation to the mountains with your family where there’s limited cell reception, the music, movies and important work documents will all be inaccessible stored in some server that’s unreachable and you’ll have to laugh because this was the future we all wanted that corporations gave us.

Maybe I’m skeptical, but the best content is physical (bookshelf) with a digital version (non-DRM) and a backup of that digital copy off-site. If your house burns down, you’ll still have the book or CD digitally but the world we’re entering into is all digital with single corporations holding the DRM keys and now they want to store the content as well. It’s unclear what’s going to happen next. Let’s hope we know what we’re doing.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: How to Manage Access to Digital Content

  1. Well said, Adam.

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  2. “…but the other content is stuck.”

    You are assuming that absolute worst in a reality that will never happen.

    Apple is the industry leader and they aren’t going anywhere. Comparing them to the industry losers is a terrible analogy since companies like MS never had a fighting chance because they were so late to the game. Which means investing in their technology was a risky/dumb choice in the first place.

    Investing in a company that has already laid the ground work and defined an industry is not something to be shaking in your boots about. That is like telling people to stop investing in solar power because one day the Sun might burn out.

    And by the time companies like Microsoft brought their DRM’d media to the table, it was too late. The game had already been won. At that point, everyone was mimicking Apple in a feeble attempt to gain market share.

    You are also assuming that Apple isn’t trying to push the movie and TV industry to allow them to offer their content free from DRM restrictions. In the near future, they could also release a DRM unlock for all videos in the store for a small fee just like they did for the music collection.

    Whether you are for or against the idea of cloud computing, you can only speculate at this point. And while your speculations are fear-mongering and negative to attract page hits for your blog, I like to believe there is two sides to every story.

    But worrying about companies like Apple, MS, and Google and whether or not you can use/play their content in the future is like worrying about Burger King overthrowing McDonalds, McDonalds disappearing from the face of this planet, and how you are going to be able to find a Big Mac after that happens. It will never happen. Some things are just too big to disappear. And investing in any of those top three tech companies is a smart choice. Because if something does go wrong, they will probably offer the solution that their customers will need to keep on enjoying their media.

    And if for some reason Apple does go belly up, and they stop producing devices to play your content on, I am sure someone will release a way to convert it or the competitor that defeated Apple at their own game would build the functionality to play their files into the new media player that the entire world is now using instead of iTunes.

    You sounds like just another person set in his ways that fears change. I am here to tell you CHANGE IS GOOD and I welcome our new cloud computing overlords.

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    1. Apple without Steve Jobs can die a slow death.

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    2. never say never…. growing up I never thought and mp3 would take over cds… now look where we are.

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  3. Good post.

    Google ChromeOS is going to move even more into the cloud and there are important issues to consider about “backup” etc.

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  4. long live physical media. jobs it out to kill it!
    i’m an apple fan but cd’s, dvd’s, Blu Ray(!) are essential. to go to cloud computing is to be totally dependant. when “they” have you, you’ll have no choice; when you have not choice, you’ll pay what the want you to and that’ll just be the begining

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  5. If all the wireless carriers follow AT&T into metered data plans, cloud computing is going to die before it even gets off the ground.

    Ditto mobile video.

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  6. I don’t trust companies and the “cloud”. It’s all big hype with little advantage and many risks. My own data? I would never give my important data to, say, Google’s services (docs, mail, my real-life location, pictures etc.) and never backup my stuff to a service I don’t know well enough.

    Regarding purchased media – I don’t want to buy the right to access some media; I want to freaking own it. On a disc, on a computer, on a backup drive, on a PVR, on a phone and/or iPad… I want to have it with me. That’s why I’d never buy, say, a Kindle (not even one with a color screen). I want my media to be with me, not on some server. And, with hard drive prices lowering, it’s just a matter of time, and we will all be able to store everything we need – locally. But I’m afraid many people won’t want to…

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  7. Don’t trust the cloud and don’t buy DRM media. Lot’s of people got screwed when Apple shut Lala.com down. We can’t trust that our media will live in perpetuity in the cloud. Backup your content. Get a couple terabytes of storage and put all your music and movies there. Renting streams is a great way to go for instant gratification but if you treasure your media keep it within your control. And there is no reason to have to buy the same album over and over again. You paid once and that should be enough. The band didn’t have to re-record the album so why should you have to pay for it again.

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  8. Agreed! Acceptance without careful thought in advance on the pros and cons is truly foolish.

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  9. “I own 300 iOS apps, 1,200 movies, 200 music videos and over 18,000 songs where over 5,000 of those songs were purchased in iTunes.”

    Your honesty is commmendable but $5000 worth of music is a little hard to believe,but as we say in the great white north chaqun a son gout

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  10. Don’t forget about the young people you mentioned in the first paragraph. You think we’ll be “buying” all of the locked-down streaming stuff?

    Consider where those YouTube-watching teenagers get hard copies of their music today. Not iTunes. YouTube. It’s trivial to rip an MP3 from a YouTube video.

    Where do they get movies? Pirate Bay. Most of them ripped from DVDs which, by the way, have DRM on them. Lot of good that did.

    The fact that this is illegal (except in Spain) doesn’t make it any less of a reality. While not everyone may condone it, you have to admit that it’s a check on the power of the corporations that we don’t want to control our data. If this future does come to pass, then it’ll turn more and more regular people into grog-drinking, swashbuckling pirates.

    Or perhaps all of the teenage pirates today will grow up to take over the tech and media companies.

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    1. Your last line is an interesting one… I’m in that recently entered the industry group. I pirated everything, because why not, it was free and getting caught is easily avoidable. But now that my income depends on media purchases, I’m thinking twice. Irony.

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