Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bits are Bits

What do movies, music, video games, telephone conversations, textbooks, magazines, television shows, tweets, SMS, blogs, etc. all have in common? They are increasingly created and distributed as bits. Each bit is either a 1 or a 0, and the bits in the latest video game are of course the same as those representing a math textbook. The real magic is the careful arrangement of bits and communicating these bits to the right place at the right time.

Clearly a musician has a different set of skills than a painter or a programmer. But the ultimate output of their work is nearly always a sequence of carefully placed bits. The music industry has the specialized skills needed to transform an artist's expression into recorded sound. Historically they have also been responsible for publishing, distributing, and selling these recordings. Lately they have taken on the additional challenge of enforcing copyright issues. The very different skills of a software developer necessitates its own industry for creating useful or entertaining software. This software industry also publishes, distributes, and sells software in addition to handling intellectual property concerns, namely through DRM (digital rights management). Two wholly independent industries exist (music & software), but a large portion of the effort, namely publishing, distribution, and sales, is completely redundant. So with this underlying digital representation common across all signals and media, why are we stuck with many different, competing channels for the distribution, sale, and protection of bits?

In a word: legacy. Historically phone companies had very little in common with book publishers and television broadcasters. Lucrative industries formed organically around each technology. Each industry grew apart. Public libraries sprung up to allow people to share printed materials. Visitors could use any book in the building, and most were eligible to be taken home for a period of time, often free of charge. It is quite hard to imagine public libraries offering to loan computer software to take home (or download) and use for a specified period of time. These separate industries grew in different directions, and this leads to the redundancy, hassle, and inefficiency we find today.

One obvious example of bit-gouging is the price which U.S. cellular telephone service providers charge for text messaging (SMS). A service plan of $59 per month will give you 1000 minutes of talk time and a free phone on TMobile, but text messages cost 10 - 20 cents each. And fees are levied for a sent message as well as a received one. So with these numbers, a minute of speech costs ~5.9 cents, while a text message costs 20-40 cents. The number of bits in a text message is much smaller (at a max of 160 characters, the maximum text message is only 1280 bits). A minute of speech (audio) on the other hand is on the order of 4 MB before compression. Therefore, one minute of speech contains roughly 3000 times the number of bits as a text message, but the cell providers charge over 5 times as much for the text message.

So how can the cell providers get away with this? Simple: they charge what people are willing to pay. With so many different bit channels available to us today and the growing adoption of smart phones, I suggest using email messages in place of text messaging. Granted, this may not be a smart choice if your provider charges for data downloads by the bit. With growing support for push notification, this is becoming the seamless experience that SMS is praised for. The point is, the industries that served and sold us bits in the past are quickly getting in the way of themselves.

Industrial protection of the bit channels leads to frustrating attempts at DRM. I certainly do not condone piracy. AAA games can cost development studios up to 50 million dollars to create. They obviously rely on sales to stay in business. One of my first experiences with DRM is with the game Where in Time is Carmen San Diego. The game included a ~1000 page printed encyclopedia in the game box. When starting the game (from a DOS prompt no less) the program required the user to look up key words in the encyclopedia to begin playing. This is based on the premise that copying the game disks is easy, but copying a 1000 page printed book is difficult. At the time this seemed a huge hassle. Today we would be thankful for such a transparent user experience.

Microsoft took a huge step in the wrong direction when Windows XP started the "activation" trend, which continues to this day. Users must purchase the software and a license. When the software is installed, the computer must be connected to the internet (now internet connectivity is assumed, but some specialized use computers still remain offline), and the computer must connect to one of Microsoft's servers and exchange license information before the software would work properly. If something unforeseen happens and Microsoft disappears, then the software becomes a shiny coaster. The most egregious violations of personal privacy are the Sony root kit disaster and the MSN music debacle. Two of the biggest names in digital commerce are responsible for sneaking software which opens root vulnerabilities on users' computers and the swift disappearance of entire libraries of legally purchased music (respectively). At best, such measures of controlling the sharing of bits is equivalent to being physically searched for stolen goods when leaving a shop. At worst, DRM measures effectively penetrate personal privacy and render legally purchased products useless.

I am certainly not the first to suggest this, but it is time to adopt a new way of publishing, distributing, selling, and protecting bits. I propose that all digital media and communications adopt a unified model for all stages beyond the creative phase. The current industries are siloed, redundant, and cumbersome. People are willing to pay for valuable content, and they do not deserve to be treated like criminals unless there is reason to believe they are.

No comments:

Post a Comment