Technology, you're doing it wrong

I'm watching old Beavis and Butt-Head episodes on Hulu (that's right), and so far I've seen two commercials that made me go "wtf".

The first is an ad for a Lifetime reality show about two women whose job it is to fit and sell bras to very large-chested women. I am not making this up. It's called Double Divas and it's real. The best part is that they aired a commercial for a show about heh heh heh boobs heh heh heh on a women-oriented channel during a Beavis and Butt-Head episode.

But the second ad is what made me scratch my head. It's a long, expensively produced ad about how DirecTV is better than cable TV, because--get this--DirecTV lets your DVR record up to 5 shows at once, v. cable that only lets you record one.

It's 2013, the web is pretty grown up, bandwidth is pretty cheap, everybody has multiple computers and phones, and the media carriers are competing on who lets you record more shows at preset times. Never mind that all that content you have to record at the time they decide to air it is sitting there in digital form in large data centers, and there's absolutely no technical reason why you have to 1) record it in the first place or 2) watch it at a particular time. (ok, for DirecTV there is, because satellite bandwidth isn't quite the same, but cable providers? please).

To truly grasp how absurd this is, imagine this scenario. Say you want to watch the Gangnam Style video. In order to do that, you have to do one of two things:

  • log on to YouTube on Friday at 9:30pm and watch it then
  • set your computer to record YouTube on Friday at 9:30pm so you can watch it later
If you don't, you can't watch it. If you go to YouTube on Saturday at 11am, no Gangnam Style for you--you can only watch Dirty Loops.

Or take Amazon's Kindle library. Say I'm downloading War and Peace onto my Kindle, and my wife wants to download Infinite Jest onto hers. And then War and Peace, why not. Does either one of us have to stop downloading a book for the other to be able to download one? Do I have to stop reading for my wife to download her book? Of course not. That's absurd.

Yet that's exactly the kind of restrictions you have when dealing with TV content, and the providers are touting half-assed solutions ("record 5 shows at once, not just one like those idiots!") to a non-problem like it's the second coming.

One of the beautiful things about digital media (and I include email in that bucket) is that it's asynchronous. A piece of digital media doesn't really exist as a single physical object, and it doesn't obey the laws of physics like, say, a library book or a movie theater do. Once a library book is checked out, you can't have it until it gets returned. If 1,000 people want to watch Bat-Man at the local theater, the theater has to make up schedules and force people to show up at 8pm, because there aren't enough projection rooms, reels and projection guys to show the movie to 1,000 people at different times. None of that is true of digital content. Sure, there are physical aspects to it (data centers, routers, CDNs, bandwidth, etc), but those are so far removed from the actual experience of the content they are basically irrelevant. If I lend you my book, I can't read it while you have it. When we have an email conversation, we can both read it at the same time, we can give it to thousands of people and still have it, I can send it at 2am and you can read it three days later. 

Digital content doesn't really exist. It's everywhere and nowhere, all the time and any time. It doesn't need to be recorded. It doesn't need for you to book your 8-9pm slot on Friday night to be enjoyed. It just needs to be requested and delivered, whenever I want, wherever I want. I'm not being an unreasonable spoiled brat here--I barely watch any TV anyway--that's just the way it already works.

So just remove the recording step. Make the DVR go away. Just let people do what they want--turn on the TV, and pick the programs they want to see. For the anal retentive, and to help you manage your bandwidth so you can precache the stuff on the viewer's TV/computer at off-peak hours, throw in a scheduler that lets people say "oh hey, I think I'ma watch Dexter on Saturday". That's it. The DVR as a free-standing device has no reason to exist. Stick a storage device inside the TV for caching and buffering, and forget about this scheduling and recording business. Call it all-you-can-eat-on-demand-TV-holicapalooza, package it as a revolutionary new thing and hope people don't realize it's just a better YouTube. I'd buy that.

But don't try to make me care about, much less covet, a digital recording "service" that's mired in the way things worked in the 1980s. I'll just torrent the stuff until you figure it out.

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