Friday, March 04, 2005

Downloadable media and distribution efficiencies

One of the big conflicts of interest in the development of the Internet as a medium for public communication is that much of publishing (the promotion of works written for public viewing/reading/listening/etc. (I really don't like the term "consumption" here)) is locked to the distribution of physical media. Occasionally counter-examples arise:
  • The extraordinary success of Napster and its ilk has been enough to encourage even the world's largest recording companies to engage in the "sale" of downloadable music.
  • Amazon has used related ideas (an enormous archive of works for distribution stored as bits and printed upon demand) to allow it to be the place to buy most book titles (not most books; the tiny fraction of the published titles that the world's bookstores carry account for far more sales than Amazon makes, but Amazon sells more titles, far more in fact, than anybody else), but still provide a physical-media interface to customers that so delights publishing organisations.
  • Also related, Brewster Kahle's Internet Bookmobile travels with digital copies of freely distributable works and prints physical copies on demand - at an astonishingly low cost - and then gives them away.
I don't (and didn't upon discovery) find any of the above to be terribly suprising - the Bookmobile's very low printing cost notwithstanding - they all appear to be pretty obvious consequences of the move to digital.

Here, however, is an example that I had not anticipated. It appears that audio books are relatively expensive and often bulky, so much so that the combination of the downloadable form of an audiobook and an iPod Shuffle is both cheaper and more compact than the cassettes/CDs that a library would usually handle, so, New York's Long Island Public Library has started buying downloads and iPod shuffles for new acquisitions.

Assuming that video libraries don't simply become extinct over the next decade, are we likely to see something similar for movie rentals?