Why Piracy Wins: Convenience, Timeliness

I had a nice little chat with the PR representative from TeleToon (the Canadian equivalent of Cartoon Network) the other week. She had contacted me for some help contacting TechVibes, and so I took the opportunity to ask when the new season of The Venture Brothers would be airing in Canada. She stated they were working to get it on the air sometime in the new year.

This is, in a word, suicide.

At this point, Cartoon Network had already broadcast half the season in the US already. I pointed out to the PR representative that because the show’s demographic skews heavily toward the geek-set, many of their viewers know how to obtain the show easily, albeit illegally, online using tools such as Miro and sites like tvRSS.net. By the time TeleToon airs the show in the new year, no one will care. She acknowledged this was probably true, and that they were trying to turn around shows faster.

I had a similar conversation at the Bridging Media conference when I talked with Gary Marcuse, a programming executive with the CBC. I asked him when the latest season of Doctor Who and Torchwood would be coming to Canada. Again, the latest seasons were already being broadcast in the UK but nowhere to be found in Canada, despite the fact that both shows are co-produced by the CBC and the BBC. Gary didn’t know the details of arrangement with the BBC, but guessed that the delay was likely due to either licensing legalities, or the terms of the co-production deal.

While iTunes has solved the problem of distributing US programming, the same isn’t true for international programming. While British classics such as Peep Show and the IT Crowd have been running for years, they haven’t made it onto iTunes, despite the sales success of other BBC shows distributed there. You can’t even buy the DVDs of these shows in North America. Your only option to get these programs currently is to buy the non-North American DVDs and a region-free DVD player – a solution which will become illegal if C-61 (“the Canadian DMCA”) becomes law.

I can’t believe that this is problem of manpower – after all, how hard is it to upload a file to the iTunes servers? Or outsource pressing of DVDs to a third party? Not very hard at all. In all likelihood the real culprit here is the nuances of licensing and international law. I imagine there’s a lot of guys spending a lot of time in dimly-lit rooms arguing over fine print for each and every country. No wonder they’re not in a hurry to do this. It sounds horrible.

The incremental approach to media distribution is what’s undermining consumers’ patience. This is why people pirate media – because it’s just damn easier and faster than waiting. In the meantime, media companies are leaving a lot of money on the table by not leveraging their assets to the fullest possible extent.

As consumers have altered their media consumption habits over the past decade, Big Media has tried every trick in the book to maintain the status quo: suing their customers into submission, deploying technological countermeasures, and lobbying for legislation to protect and perpetuate their crumbling business model. But they’ve ignored the obvious solution – we’re willing to pay, but we’re not willing to wait.

We want the good stuff, and we want it now.

Sony PRS 505 E-Reader Reviewed

The Sony PRS 505 E-ReadersIt’s been six months or so since I received the Sony PRS 505 E-Reader from my last employer as a generous going away present, and I forgot that I hadn’t posted my thoughts on the device yet. After six months, I can safely say I’ve been relatively pleased with the device.

For those that haven’t seen or played with the device, the Sony PRS 505 is an electronic book, one of the first commercial application of “electronic ink”, a passive display technology from E Ink Corporation. Unlike a traditional LCD screen, such as those in laptops and computer monitors, electronic ink is a passive diaply technology. It uses no power to display the image, and does not feature a backlight to illuminate the screen. Instead, the display uses reflected light just like a regular book. The result is a remarkably crisp display that is easy on the eyes, and uses miniscule amounts of power to “turn the page”.

At first, I was a bit sceptical about the Sony device. When it first appeared, the device was well over $300 and was a bit bulky. The PRS 505 is the second generation of the device, and features a slimmer design and similarly slimmer cost (on the order of $280). Yet despite the lower price, I’m not sure I would have bought this device on my own; it was something I wanted, but not so badly that I was about to lay out cash for it.

In retrospect, that was a mistake that I’m grateful was corrected when I received the device as a gift.

The device itself is on par with the weight of a medium-sized hardback book. The battery is only required when turning the page, a feature which easily allows the user to read a handful of books between recharges. The ergonomic design of the device is quite clever – the circular button at the bottom left moves the book between pages, and sits naturally under the thumb when resting the book in your hand with the cover (not shown) held open by your thumb. Similarly, the two navigation buttons on the right side mimic the place where you might normally place your thumb when flipping through a normal paperback book.

Reading is fairly natural, although the time the screen takes to change between “pages” is noticeable and can sometimes interrupt the action on the page. You can scale up the text, a feature that’s sure to be appreciated by older readers with failing eyesite – in fact, this device may eventually find a good following with older readers for this feature alone (doubly true if you believe Steve Jobs’ assertion that nobody reads anymore really just applies to the Millennials).

The one major failing of the device, sadly, is Sony’s eBook Store and the associates client software used to purchase books from the store and place them on the device. Sony’s software is notoriously poor (I speak from experience), and the PRS 505 client software is no expection. It’s slow to load the application, slow to access the store, offers incomprehensible representations of what books are on the device currently versus what books are on your computer locally, and takes an inexplicable amount of time to move a book onto the device. In the end, I’ve found it easier and faster to simply download the electronic books from the store to my hard drive, mount the device as a USB drive, and copy the files over myself manually.

That said, the selection of the store is pretty decent. Besides the latest best-sellers, there’s a fairly extension library of the classics. When I received the device, I also received a voucher for $50 worth of electronic books, plus 100 credits to use on purchasing any of the Sony Classics (likely pulled down from Project Gutenberg). I have yet to purchase any more books beyond these amounts (still working my way through the pile).

The device also handles text, RTF, and PDF files, allowing you to use the device to read any existing documents you may in those formats. In reality, the rendering of these formats on the device leaves something to be desired: page breaks are often inconsistent, rendering the reading experience somewhat degraded. There are, however, many freely available resources for downloading appropriately formatted versions of Project Gutenberg books, such as manybooks.net.

Many will wonder how this device compares to the Amazon Kindle device, which I was lucky enough to try out while in California (one of my friends at work bought one). The devices uses the same screen technology as the Sony PRS 505, and shares many similarities. The two major feature differences are the industrial design of the Kindle, which I found to be far less elegant than the Sony device, and the wireless capabilities of the Kindle. The Kindle features a built-in wireless modem that allows the user to download books from Amazon.com directly. There is no cost for this feature, as this device effectively enables Amazon.com to sell books anywhere. The Kindle is a fair bit more expensive, however, costing about $350.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the Sony device and continue to use it. It’s especially useful when I’m travelling to tote a couple books in my backpack without crippling myself. However, at $280 the device is still too expensive for most users, in my opinion. This device is something to stick on the Christmas or birthday list and hope someone’s feeling generous.