While enjoying an episode of South Park (it’s hard to believe that show has been going strong for so long) via my iPad while cooking this weekend I had an epiphany. We are on the cusp of a new era of media, but the emergence has been so gradual that no one has noticed even though we have almost left the prior one behind.
The episode referenced The Shining to mock Blockbuster and physical media outlets due to our shift to streaming sources of entertainment. Ironically, I was watching the episode on Netflix (as I have long since ditched my satellite dish), but after finishing up the roasted asparagus, cashew-encrusted pork chops, and aglio y olio pasta it occurred to me that the show was more than just timely entertainment, it was a compelling statement about the slow transition of consumer tastes.
I still remember when the first Blockbuster opened in the small town I was born. For years it was the center of home entertainment and packed with locals that found it more affordable, enjoyable, or practical to catch a movie at home rather than go out. Mom and Pop stores popped up to compete, but it reigned supreme for the time I lived there. Now Blockbuster is struggling in vain to recover from bankruptcy, and most local video rental stores have long since closed.
The iPod marked the beginning of the end for the prior model of media. While there were MP3 players available before the iPod, Apple manage to make the device and format a consumer standard. With the establishment of the iPod Apple then created the next step in the transition away from physical media formats, the iTunes Music Store. Piracy of music remains and likely always will, but iTunes (and later competitors) made high quality music affordable and readily available to anyone with network access. From there all it took was improvement in broadband access and video codecs before the same started happening to movies and television shows. While media companies have steadfastly struggled to maintain some of the same business models, consumer demand has forced them to either adapt or lose out on the revenue they could have captured had they accommodated them.
Slowly, consumers have embraced the next big age of media- a digital era, free of physical formats and local content. The crux of the matter is the second point; we’ve taken to digital content without a moment’s hesitation, but many still cling to keeping the content locally, whether it be on your portable device, a large iTunes music library on your Mac, or an external hard drive full of your favorite movies and television series. I personally have opted for larger capacity iOS devices to accommodate my owned media: a 32 gig iPhone holds my music and podcasts (and took the place of a 120 gig iPod Classic), and a 32 gig iPad holds video, presentations, and documents. My desire for local storage isn’t unusual; Apple recently announced the release of a 128 gigabyte version of the iPad for those road warriors that need to have everything at their fingertips, and the iPod Classic has remained in Apple’s product lineup far longer than anyone would have thought. While more storage has always been a good thing, the South Park episode I had watched struck a chord. Was all that capacity really necessary anymore?
I’ve been an advocate for streaming media services for some time now. I’ve had a paid Pandora account for a couple of years and have thoroughly enjoyed it. Netflix and Hulu were the deciding factor for my household to end paid TV services, and other streaming video and audio services have played a larger and larger role in my regular media consumption. YouTube has always been a staple, but how many of you are aware that they have more than cute cat clips and fail videos- they have full length feature films as well? For those that don’t like iTunes there are options outside of Netflix- Amazon’s Instant Video, Crackle, and the Google Play Store are all viable sources for your entertainment fix. There are plenty of free and paid sources for music downloads, but just as many that offer streaming instead of downloading for those that would rather have their music delivered to them rather than manage it directly. Even Apple is rumored to be on the verge of joining the game via iRadio, a Pandora-like service.
Even the model of purchasing media is slowly changing. Many media retailers offer cloud access to your purchases, be they movies, music, print, or apps. The Apple TV has long since lost its local storage capacity in favor of streaming content from Apple.
On a personal level I’ve noticed that between Stitcher, Pandora, and XM Sirius I haven’t really listened to the stored content on my iPhone in weeks, even though driving without some sort of audio is completely foreign to me. I haven’t loaded a movie from my home library to my iPad or MacBook in quite some time either, yet I watch more TV now than I did when I had cable or DirecTV. My MacBook’s iTunes app isn’t even stored on the dock and its library has no content, yet I’ve watched plenty of video and listen to Pandora daily via the Hermes desktop app.
Quietly, subtly, I’ve found that I have shifted to consuming the majority of my entertainment via my network connection. The move has been both positive and problematic; having access to a much greater library of media is always a good thing, but should that network connection have issues (or worse be interrupted) I’d be left with nothing. There are still times when local storage has been the best solution, but those times are becoming more and more isolated.
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