The Future of Total Multimedia Access

I have often wondered what it would be like to have any movie, any TV show, any documentary, any news broadcast, any historical footage, any sports event, any album, any song, any radio drama, and any thing at all of that or similar nature at my very beck and call. That includes, of course, the very latest releases of all the previously mentioned categories.

When I mention this to people they will often tell me, “Just go to Hulu.com”, or “Checkout YouTube”, or “Haven’t you heard of Netflix, dufus?” But no. None of these, nor any other currently existing service, is even remotely close to what I am talking about. I am talking about all media ever created, that is still in existence somewhere. Perhaps we should throw digitized versions of all books into that as well, just for fun. Audio books too.

Streaming media is, of course, the key to all of this, and technology is slowly getting there step-by-step. However, current streaming technology has much to be desired, and what we will have in 2020 will make us laugh at 2010. At the present time, local media (CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray, local hard drive, etc.) remains supreme in these 3 areas:

  • Quality: Local media can achieve much higher quality than streaming media as DVDs, hard drives, and Blu-ray discs can hold massive amounts of data (upwards of 100 GB for Blu-ray and terabytes in the case of hard drives).
  • Access Speed: This is where streaming has significant catching up to do. The Internet backbone cannot handle the massive streaming requests from everyone on Earth for countless millions of HD quality movies every minute of every day, and neither can the “last mile” connection to your neighborhood and houses. We have a long way to go on this item, as entire continents need to completely re-wired with fiber optics along with new equipment for all the backbone providers. And streaming true HD over 3G? Forget about it! 4G won’t even cut it.
  • Permanency: When I have physical, local media, it just seems more permanent. I know that if I want to watch Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, I can do so anytime just by popping the DVD into a player, at no additional cost beyond what I paid for the DVD set. I can also take it with me to a friend’s house, or on a business trip or vacation to watch any time. Many streaming media services, such as Netflix and even Hulu.com, do not have this permanent feel. For Netflix, as well as On Demand video from cable providers, you can only rent the movie for a given period of time. In Hulu’s case, the video may only be available for a short period of time before being removed.

The Ultimate Total Media Access Service

So what do I want? One service — well, not one service to choose from, that would be a monopoly — but one service of many that I can choose from which fits the following criteria:

  • It must have all music and audio books every created, all movies, TV shows, documentaries, news broadcasts, sports events, historical footage, and so forth, ever made in the highest quality available.
  • Optionally, it may have all books ever written in some standardized eBook format, although I would accept this being a separate service.
  • The subscription and access must be valid for an entire household (i.e., a legal family entity) rather than on an individual basis.
  • Access to the service should be simple, but very secure. This is, of course, the holy grail of online service access beyond the rudimentary “login / password” system. Biometric identification, certificate (or hardware) based authentication, or a device like an RSA SecurID, are all possible options. Or maybe the technology has yet to be invented.
  • No hardware or vendor lock-in. In other words, it must be possible to access content on any device that has the technical capacity to do so (computer, set-top box, powerful PDA/iPhone like thing, etc.) without some silly vendor specific lock-in.
  • I do not want the media to take an hour to download to start playing. I’m not unreasonable, though. I would say 10 or 20 seconds at most for buffering, but the faster the better.
  • Likewise, I do not want to see stops and pauses as the video tries to buffer in the middle of playback.

You will notice I have not mentioned cost, DRM, or advertising. That is because I imagine that such a service will cost money, will have DRM (except on public domain content), and will have some kind of advertising. All three of these items will be addressed below.

Free as in Liberty, Not as in Beer

The word “free” has several meanings, often distinguished as Libre versus Gratis, or “free as in liberty” (sometime “free speech”) versus “free as in beer” (sometimes “free pizza” or “free lunch”). The fact is, movies, TV shows, music, and other media take a lot of time and money to create. It is a commercial, revenue-driven industry after all, and the industry has to be profitable to continue forward. Personally, I am against intellectual property piracy, and believe that the artist, writers, actors, directors, studios, and everyone involved in the making of the movie, show, or album should get their money. If movies, TV shows, and music were completely free, very few people would bother making them (other than just for fun or with very small budgets) as they would earn no revenue.

Thus, a total media service cannot be “free as in beer” (or “free lunch”), but it can be “free as in liberty”. A “free as in liberty” media service would allow the viewing of media, which does not restrict the number of times it can be viewed (once purchased), or the devices on which the media can be viewed, or any kind of rental time restrictions. In fact, I believe this would go far toward eradicating media piracy all together. After all, why would you pirate a movie or album if you have instant access to it from anywhere in the world on any capable media device as part of a basic subscription? It also eliminates the argument “I must make copies of my music/movies to back them up, in case the original is damaged”, as the media will always (at least in theory) be available.

There will, of course, be a great deal of “free as in beer” content, but only after you have subscribed. The monthly basic service fee (whatever it is) should allow complete access to a vast archive of historical recordings, old (i.e., not current or recent) movies, TV shows, and music, and all content that is otherwise considered public domain, non-commercial, negligibly profitable, or which is licensed under the creative commons.

How Much Do We Pay Now?

Looking at my own spending habits, I see that my monthly cable bill, minus my broadband service, is around $60 a month. If I wanted some movie channels it would be closer to $80 a month. I don’t buy a lot of music, perhaps $100 worth a year, and about $300 worth in DVD movies and TV shows. Plus, maybe, 10 movies in theater, x2 for 2 people,  is around $150. That’s $1510 a year on such multimedia entertainment as movies, TV shows, and music. I don’t know if this is typically for most people, but to make the numbers simple, let’s say $1500 a year, or $125 a month.

Therefore, if a total media access service costs between $100 to $125 a month, I would consider it an even trade for a presumably better service (I’m assuming that this would replace cable, buying DVDs and CDs, and seeing movies in theaters).

However, a service with a flat fee of even $125 a month probably wouldn’t work. After all, new releases and new TV shows have to pay for themselves, and earn enough on a per viewer basis to warrant continuation.

An a-la-cart system, whereby you subscribe to shows (or a complete TV series) and buy new movies, should work out quite well. A fair price, in my book anyway, would be about $40 for a full run of a new season (anywhere from 12 to 22 episodes, typically), or $20 for old but recent season, and $10 for a season of a old but still potentially profitable show. Most older shows, as mentioned above, would be “free” as part of the archive access service. A new release movie or album should be $10, or $5 for any movie or album more than 1 or 2 years old, or “free” as part of the archive access service if it is a very old movie or album (perhaps greater than 10 years). Other services such as news channels, sports shows, science and educational shows, and so forth, could be all similarly tiered. In this I’m not talking about time-based rental, pay-per-view, or any kind of limited access. Once you purchase a movie or series you should be able to access it again and again, anytime, anywhere, forever.

Working the Numbers

Let’s look at some numbers to see if this is even viable. Hollywood is currently a $10 billion industry (http://www.imdb.com/news/ni1332520/), the TV industry is $16 billion (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=conewsstory&tkr=TWX:US&sid=aRsv8K6M 0gEE), the music industry is $33 billion (http://www.ifpi.org/content/section_news/20060622.html). That is nearly $60 billion total. $60 billion is nothing to sneeze at, and by 2020 that will probably be somewhere around $80 billion (at a guesstimated 3% annual increase). How could a service like this possibly pay for itself and cover all the revenue earned by the TV, movie, and music industry? I haven’t even included the revenue of the publishing industry, so maybe I’ll just ignore that for the time being (after all, I’m mainly talking about video media here). At any rate, the total multimedia access service (or services, if there are more than one) would have to earn at least $60 billion in revenue, in 2010 dollars, annually.

On these grounds, I would anticipate that a basic subscription, which would simply give access to the system, would reasonably cost around $40 to $50 a month. That may seem like a lot, but this is what digital cable costs in most places. Even $60 would not be unreasonable. On top of that, consider that new movies and new shows must also be purchased or subscribed too for an additional cost. Buying 3 movies a month at $10 each would be another $30 a month, and subscribing to 5 full season series at $40 each would cost $200 a year (or simply $16.60 a month). For the average viewer, that comes to around $100 a month, or $1200 a year. That is even less than my earlier estimate of $1500 a year which, at least in my case, are spent on movies, music, and digital cable.

Next, we need to know how many people might subscribe to such a service — a few hundred thousand? A few million? Tens of millions? In my view, there will eventually be tens of millions of subscribers, and cable TV, video rentals, DVD purchases and the like will gradually fade into obscurity. The 2004 US Census Bureau reports that there are over 113 million households in the USA. If some 45% of those (which is around the number of households with $50,000 a year income or higher) will subscribe to this service, then there are potentially 50 million subscribers. Once again, I am emphasizing that subscriptions should be per household, not per person, just like cable is today.

With 50 million households subscribed at $100 a month (base subscription plus additional purchases), that comes to $60 billion a year, which about the same as the combined revenue of the music, movie, and television industries (as of 2010). Considering that this service would likely be available world-wide, the potential revenue will be measurable in the hundreds of billions of dollars (or euros if you prefer). If 200 million households subscribed world-wide, that would bring in a whopping $240 billion. Wow! To whomever eventually implements this system: please give me a token 0.1% of your yearly revenue for the idea. I would much appreciated it. Thanks!

What about Advertisements?

To be clear, I hate advertisements. Actually, I hate advertisements that interrupt my viewing experience. On the other hand, I know advertisements serve 2 critical functions: 1) it is a source of additional revenue that helps off-set the cost of the service, and 2) it makes viewers aware of products and other shows that they might be interested in.

Some would argue that a paid service should have no ads. That is justifiable to an extent, but even cable TV (which you pay for) is not advertisement free. More importantly, how would a studio gauge whether or not to keep a series or show in production if it were not based on some factor such as revenue per viewer? Clearly, paying for a series (i.e. $40 to subscribe to a full season of certain show) will go a long way toward satisfying this requirement. But advertising is also necessary, for the two reasons stated above.

A successful advertising system for a total media access service would probably work on two levels. One would be ads that exist on the media access menu pages, much like web ads today. Ads would appear on the side or top of the screen as you browse for a movie, TV show, music album, or whatever. In fact, the ads could be fine tuned for the particular media category you happen to be browsing (and advertisers love the idea of highly targeting advertising).

The second, and perhaps higher paying ads, would appear as a selected movie or TV show is buffering. This is nothing new. It is currently done on services such as Hulu (although Hulu throws ads into the middle of the show as well, which in my book is a big “no no”), as well as many others of a similar nature. In fact, I could see 2 to 5 minutes worth of ads being shown before the start of a movie or TV show, including some kind of quick ads or trailers for similar movies or shows the viewer might be interested in. However, the length of advertisements should be proportional to the “newness” of the media. Old content should have very little, if any, ads.

Regardless, I remain firmly opposed to showing ads that break into an actual movie or TV show as this interrupts the actual enjoyment of the viewing experience. I am extremely opposed to the showing of ads at the top, bottom, or sides of the screen while a show is playing. I would rather gauge my own eyeballs out with a spoon rather than watch a show with that kind of crap flitting about (okay, I wouldn’t go that far, but my point is made).

What About Digital Rights Management?

Once upon a time I despised the idea of Digital Rights Management (DRM). But now that I think about it, I really do not see what the big deal would be if DRM was done right. My problem with current DRM implementations is that they are too restrictive. If I pay for a movie or music album, I should be able to watch it whenever and wherever I want, without restriction. The only thing DRM should do is prevent me from giving (or selling) a copy of the media to someone who has not paid the intellectual property owner for it. At the present time, DRM is such that you must use a special media player or special device, or can only watch the content on the one device that you downloaded the media to. (I hate having to end a sentence in a preposition… That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!)

With the total media access service, they can DRM the media all they want (except for public domain content, which should not be DRMed by definition). Since I would be able to access any shows that I have subscribed to and any movies that I have ever purchased, as well as all free content, I would be able to watch it all anywhere, anytime, and on any media capable device that I choose to use. Under those conditions, who cares if the content is DRMed or not? It would be effectively transparent to the viewer.

The real issue, of course, has nothing to do with DRM, and it has everything to do with accessibility. Virtually all DRM complaints revolve around the fact that DRM on downloaded files, or which protects CDs and DVDs from illegal copying, cripples the portability and ease-of-access of such media. DRM media can only be played in certain licensed players, may only be playable on one device, or may become “dead” at some point in the future when the DRM technology or DRM service fades into obscurity. The most compelling argument against DRM is that if the authenticating service ever “goes dark” it will be impossible to access the media. While that may be perfectly valid for local media (on CDs or DVDs), it is not true for a total media access service. Should such a service go dark, the media in question will not even be available in the first place, and the argument against DRM becomes a mute point. For the purposes of preserving all digital media in perpetuity, a non-DRM version should exist in a protected (perhaps even off-line) archive, which can be sold or transferred to another service provider in the event of business failure (or in the event of some global cataclysm, so as to allow future archaeologist at least some chance of recovering non-DRM content).

The Media Archive Access Service

The key item to all of this, the “killer app” if you would, is the media archive access service, or MAAS. The media archive access service would be where all the “free” content can be found — and there would be quite a lot of it. I suspect that millions of people, if not tens of millions, would subscribe just to access the MAAS, and nothing else.

The MAAS, in short, is all media (all video, music, movies, shows, sports events, footage, whatever), ever created, preserved and available in non-proprietary digital form, to everyone who subscribes to this hypothetical total media service. And by that I do mean everything. Everything, from the 1903 Alice in Wonderland and Edison’s earliest audio recordings, up to the present day. The exception would be new and recent releases that must still be paid for — they would all be part of MAAS, of course, but accessible only with the requisite payment. After a certain period of time, the access fee for recent releases would gradually diminish, until after 5 years (maybe more in some cases) it becomes “free” as part of the general access media archive.

Portions of this service could be made completely free as part of a public service or partial government subsidy, for educational, historical, and cultural value. The MAAS could allow general public access to view all media from before the 1960s (or 1970s), as well as all non-commercial and other public domain video, for absolutely no charge (subscription or otherwise). Obviously, however, there would need to be some kind of subsidy to offset the hardware and bandwidth cost for providing such a service to the general public.

Media A-la-Cart

Paid content, above and beyond the basic subscription cost, would primarily serve to off-set the cost, and make a profit on, new shows, movies, and albums. Such content would have to be purchased either individually (one movie or one album) or as a subscription. The definition of “new” content might be variable, after all, the “new releases” category at Blockbuster Video can go back 4 or 5 years. What constitutes a new release, as well as the pricing for content, might be entirely up to the intellectual property owner (the studio, creator, or licenser of the content). The idea is simply that new content will cost significantly more than old content (which presumably has already earned significant revenue), and very old content (10 years +, or whatever is determined) will be “free” as part of the MAAS.

For decades, people have talked about a-la-cart cable channels, but such a system has never materialized, and probably never will. Even so, most us only have 15 to 20 channels that we regularly watch, while we all but ignore the remaining 300. Instead, with this total media access system, you would be able to subscribe not to channels, but to the specific shows you actually want to watch. This could get expensive if you watch a lot of shows and new movies, but remember older show would cost less, and very old shows would be free. Only new content would have a significant cost association. If you subscribed to 10 full season series (that’s 10 x 22 episodes a season, or 220 episodes), at $40 a season, you would be paying some $33 a month. To put this into perspective, buying a season of popular TV series on DVD can cost well over $60 for just one season. The first few episodes of a given series or season could also be available for free in order to allow people to watch, get hooked if they like it, and as a result purchase the season.

Of course, we are all channel surfers, and often fine ourselves flipping through channels or the channel guide until we settle on some mediocre show to watch for an hour. This activity is due to the fact that television shows are pre-scheduled, and we must find something that is currently playing during those times we are free to watch television.  If we had complete control over what we to watch when we want to watch it, we would never simply settle for something we only halfheartedly want to watch. Instead, we would only watch those shows that we sincerely enjoy.

I can also imagine pricing plans that combines certain kinds of one-off or short run series into packages that work almost like channels do today, but which allow you to view the content at whatever time you desire.  News packages, sports packages, educational packages, cooking show packages, science and nature show packages, and so forth, could all be made available at anywhere from $10 to $50 a month (or $120 to $600 a year), and would not be unreasonable given the quantity of content that such packages would provide. You might even be able to structure your own package deals, including options to defer costs by accepting additional advertisements or perhaps paying extra to reduce advertisements.

Boon to the Creative Arts and Independent Studios

The greatest hurdle to independent film makers and musicians is distribution. There are currently many avenues for the distribution of independent films on the internet, but these still fall short of the kind of distribution major films and television shows enjoy. Under this total media access system, both indie and pro films, shows, and albums will effectively compete on equal terms. Popular indie films or shows will gain more subscribers, thus more revenue, and with more revenue will prosper and grow — eventually “going pro” due to their rising success and popularity.

Of course, the down side of this is that there may be a deluge of lousy content. Viewer ratings, “popularity meters”, grassroots fan clubs, and similar developments would naturally arise to distinguish good indie (as well as pro) content from the not-so-good, and the system’s content organization interface would have to allow for a quick assessment of these kinds of viewer ratings.

Access, Security, and Freedom

Such a service as this needs to be secure to ensure that only those authorized to access content can access the content. No one wants some stranger accessing the service through their account, to see the content which they have purchased, or worse, purchasing new content through their account, for which they may be charged. Nor would the service provider want millions of people free-loading on insecure accounts. Thus, security is paramount. On the other hand, no one wants to use a service that is prohibitively restrictive, or which has security measures that are so complex and comprehensive as to be unusable.

The current paradigm of user login and password is an arcane relic of narrow-minded thinking that has, thus far, eluded succession by any method that is both superior and more convenient. This is the “holy grail” of online security and access validation. Most people want one and only one way to access anything to which they have registered, which is why most people try to use the same log on and password for all online services (and which is generally considered an insecure practice). Nevertheless, we cannot be expected to remember 50 different log-ons and 50 different passwords, nor is the log on / password system even secure in the first place since most people use very poor passwords.

Unfortunately, I do not have the answer. If I did, I would be rich. My point is simply that a log on / password method would not be sufficient for this total media access system. However it works, the authentication system would have to have these capabilities:

  • It must automatically allow access to the system for all media capable devices in a household (house or apartment for example) with a minimum of setup. New devices should also be able to gain access automatically or with a minimum of setup.
  • It must be able to prevent unauthorized devices from gaining access. For example, your neighbor’s wireless device should not be able to connect to your account, either accidentally or on purpose.
  • This may be accomplished at set up by identifying the user in a unique way, with a minimal chance for error or unauthorized by-pass, perhaps via multiple biometric signatures (voice + facial recognition, or voice + hand print, or some other mixed combination).
  • The subscriber could be given a card (or some kind of plug-in device) that has a large, complex cipher or code that initializes the media device to enable access. While it is true that no encrypted code is entirely unbreakable, it should be of such complexity or difficult as to make it impractical to break, or simply not worth the effort to do so.
  • This authentication system must work for all portable devices on which the subscriber wishes to enable access.
  • The subscriber should be able to quickly disable access on portable devices to prevent unauthorized access on devices that have been lost or stolen.
  • Once again, subscriptions are not for an individual, but all members of a household. However, the master account owner may have a special access area (which may still be password based, but biometrics would be better) that allows him or her to configure such things as parental locks, payment details, purchasing content or subscriptions, and so forth.
  • Individual users who are part of the household account would also need to be uniquely identifiable, as each would have their own preferences, favorites, and if children, locks to prevent access to certain content deemed inappropriate by the parent.

In my view, biometrics (in some form) will drive the identification mechanism for individual users, but access to the system itself, for a given subscription account, should still be locked down to specific devices which must be registered or initialized for access on a one-time setup (which can, of course, be changed or revoked as needed). Furthermore, there should be no limit to the number of such devices for a given subscription.

How to Make It a Reality

Right now this is all basically a pipe-dream. And, unfortunately, I am in no position to pull something like this off. Truth be told, I have no idea who would be. Perhaps Time-Warner, Disney, or Viacom, but there would have to be extensive cross-licensing agreements between all media conglomerates, studios, distributors, and intellectual property owners. That would require some pretty hefty clout.

Obviously, the biggest obstacle is hardware, infrastructure, and bandwidth.  To archive all media in existence would likely require hundreds of petabytes of storage, quadruple backed-up (if not more). So we are really talking about several exabytes (that is, several billion gigabytes) of storage. Given that a single system would be over-loaded by millions of requests a day, there would need to be dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of regional “cache archives” to balance the load. Now we are looking at hundreds of exabytes of storage. At a cost of $0.05 per gigabyte, such a system could cost upwards of $10 billion. By 2020,  the cost per gigabyte may be as low as $0.005 (half a penny), at which point 200 exabytes of storage will cost a cool $1 billion.

Naturally, a multitude of data centers would also have to exist to support the processing required to handle all the requests, on top of the cost of all that storage. I have no idea how much a data center might cost. I’ll just say “$50 million” and leave it at that. Having 30 such data centers around the country (or the world) would therefore cost another $1.5 billion. Still doable, in my opinion, for a large media conglomerate.

A still bigger issue is infrastructure and bandwidth. A 1080p full HD movie runs at 3 gigabits per second of bandwidth. Most broadband is rated around 50 to 100 megabits, far short of 3 Gb/s needed to stream full HD. Even if compressed by a factor of 10, broadband still falls short. Now imagine what would be needed to stream 3 or 4 simultaneous videos? Imagine what kind of bandwidth would be needed for a neighborhood of 100 houses all streaming 2 or 3 HD videos? As for wireless and cellular access, forget about it. 3G is only 14 Mb/s, and 4G should be around 100 Mb/s. Maybe when 6G wireless service comes out it will be sufficient… Maybe.

Clearly, vast improvements to the communications infrastructure are desperately needed. While I have no idea what it will cost, I imagine the price tag might reach hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to make the necessary improvements to our existing communications infrastructure to allow so as to allow millions of simultaneous streams of full HD video around the country, and, indeed, around the world.

Conclusion

As the cost of broadband goes down, and internet infrastructure capabilities improve, it is inevitable that a service such as this, or one that is at least very similar, will eventually arise. I do not know if their pricing structure will be remotely similar to what I have outlined here — it could be better, but it will probably start out more expensive with the price either gradually going down or stabilizing with the rate of inflation.

Some will say that such services as Hulu and Netflix will evolve into this total media access service. And maybe they will. In October 21, 2009, Chase Carey, Deputy Chairman of News Corporation, said: “I think a free model is a very difficult way to capture the value of our content. I think what we need to do is deliver that content to consumers in a way where they will appreciate the value. Hulu concurs with that, it needs to evolve to have a meaningful subscription model as part of its business,” (see article here), meaning that very some content on Hulu will only be accessible via a paid subscription. Many people will yell and scream about this, but I do not see a problem with it in terms of displacing cable and movie purchases and/or rentals.

However, even if Hulu does become the “total media access system” I am talking about, it has a very, very long way to go. The quality of Hulu videos is not HD, even though they claim it is–it is, in fact, quite laughable. Furthermore, even if the selection of videos on Hulu were to grow by a factor of 10,000, it would still be no where near “total”.

Nevertheless, I anticipate that great strides will be made between 2010 and 2014, with something coming at least marginally close to what I have proposed around 2015 or 2016. If that occurs, then by 2020 not only will cable be “mostly dead”, but so will DVDs, CDs, and other “local media” formats.

Imagine, if you would, the year 2018. You have subscribed to a total multimedia access service for your household. Your kids are watching a free educational show in the living room. The screen in your kitchen is playing a cooking show specifically selected from one that was originally broadcast in 1993 that demonstrates an excellent method for making handmade ravioli. You call up the video subscriptions on your cell phone device and make sure you are indeed subscribed to the latest hit series you want to see. Although 12 of the series’ 22 episodes are already released, you’re not worried about having missed anything — you can view them anytime. After dinner you pull up on your wall screen a free episode of a science show you remember from your childhood: Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”. After watching it, you begin watching the first episode of the new series you recently subscribed to. Unfortunately, you have to stop because you must pick up a friend up at the airport. Once you get to the airport, you find that you must wait another half hour for the plane to land and taxi (some things never change). While you wait, you call up on your cell phone the episode you were earlier watching at home, plug in your wireless ear-buds, and finish viewing. For the remaining ten minutes you watch a few clips of the national news, selected automatically by your default news preferences.

None of this sounds particularly revolutionary, and yet nothing as complete or comprehensive exists yet. We have a lot of the necessary pieces scattered about here and there, from various disparate services and presented in various, often incompatible, ways. But within the next 10 year, I believe those piece will finally come together to deliver the total multimedia access system that I (at least for now) can only dream about.

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