The End of Content Ownership

* PC Mag
April 11, 2011

The cloud, along with subscription and on-demand services, will transform our perception of content access and ownership.
Lance Ulanoff By Lance Ulanoff

  • Cloud Computing

The cloud is, finally, about to change our lives—and it will all start with content.

A couple of weeks ago I dragged some of my favorite super-large hardcover books out of the attic and placed them on a shelf in my living room. I may read them again, but it’s more likely they’ll live out their golden years as decorative objects. Interestingly, I think most of my old VHS, CDs, and even DVDs and Blu-rays may soon be joining these books as objects d’art instead of useful content objects.

Until recently, I derided “the cloud,” insisting that it’s simply an airy label for “the Internet.” When you store stuff or access anything from the cloud, you’re simply tapping into the Internet and touching a far-flung server. Nothing lives above you in the stratus or cirrus vapors over our heads. No, it’s just terrestrial miles and miles (hundreds or even thousands) away and speeding to you at the speed of an electron or, in the case of fiber, light.

That argument, however, now misses the point. In recent weeks companies like Amazon, Sony, Google, Verizon, 24symbols and others have started to roll out “cloud-based” content streaming and on-demand services (or plans) for movies, music and even books. Video on demand is nothing new. Nor is streaming. Roku and Netflix more or less pioneered the mass adoption of the latter concept. The difference now, though, is that companies like Amazon want you to stream your own content.

Ten, 15 years from now, we will look back on this time as a quaint, yet painful transition period: one where consumers learned to give up the physical manifestation of content in favor of constant access to what they own from anywhere they can find Internet access.

It’s almost shocking to watch the fundamental distrust of “the cloud” fade away in favor of cloud-based content storage and access. As recently as last year, the cloud came under attack with every Google service failure on Gmail or Google Docs. “There it is,” the critics cried, “proof positive that the cloud cannot be trusted. You must have constant access to all of your e-mail and files 24/7. Anything less than that is a disaster.” This point of view assumes, of course, that we are online 24/7 and, more importantly, never stop working.

We do take breaks from work and even the computer, so there are times when cloud access is not an issue. It’s finally dawning on cloud naysayers that even with the cloud’s occasional blips, it’s still more efficient for content access than, say your home. While you have easy access to your home library of books, movies, and CDs, they’re not all digitized and it does take time to queue up DVDs and movies. As for books—is every book you’ve ever read sitting on your shelves right now? Unlikely. Even among the ones you still own, many are probably in storage. Even the home and office computer looks a little less attractive when compared to a network that’ll offer you file access from anyone’s computer. Your dead PC is no longer an impediment to getting things done.

What’s Possible

Cloud-based storage and access makes the impossible, possible. 24Symbols, which launches next summer in Europe, takes Amazon’s Kindle ebook concept to new almost dizzying heights. Even though book files are some of the smallest you’ll find (its super easy to compress those files because they’re just letters and you only need one representation for each letter), 24Symbols wants to stream you book access on a subscription basis. You’ll no longer own any books. Instead you’ll be able to stream and read as much as you want. The fact that 24Symbols is an ad-supported book network is not the riskiest proposition here. Instead, it’s the concept of streaming a book pages (or perhaps words) at a time. In other words, the entire tome never resides on your computer, smartphone, or ereader. Will avid readers ever trust a service that forever runs the risk of blocking access to the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows or Pillars of the Earth because you can’t access the Internet or the site is down?

Some will surely say 24Symbols is going too far. At least with the movies and music Amazon, Google (and likely one day Apple) want to rent you, the content lasts from a few minutes to two or three hours, max. A 1,000-page book might take someone weeks to read. On the other hand, ebooks have already shown us how we can trust a battery-powered device with not one but hundreds and hundreds of our books. We read, charge every once in a while, and never worry. Surely, the average bookworm will come to trust and love streaming books, as well.

It’s clear to me, however, that we’re turning a corner. Content ownership—with copyright laws always a fuzzy thing at best—is ready to transform into content access. Consumers want to sample a wide array of content styles and there is no better way than the cloud.

There will still be those who buy books, movies and music, because they know no other way, even though the reason for buying content in the first place—constant access—will no longer be a factor. The parent whose child wants to watch “Dora the Explorer: Big Sister Dora” over and over and over again doesn’t have to own the DVD or even the digital file. Cloud-based ownership and access means that their child can see Dora play big sister at home, on the iPad, in the car, and on mommy’s smartphone. They own the movie or, more likely, have an all-you-can eat subscription service, so each viewing costs nothing except the price of Internet access.

For the majority of consumers, however, they will come to fully trust the cloud and believe in subscription pricing for everything. Ownership will become an anathema as consumers realize they don’t want to risk losing content as they switch services, and they tire of finding requisite space on their own local storage for all those digital files. The benchmark for a good service will be based on the richness of each library. Consumers will pay companies like Amazon, a fixed amount for full-boat, yearly access.

At home, our bookshelves will contain artifacts of a bygone content-ownership era. We’ll touch those books, Blu-rays and CDs, but only to dust them.