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This article was published on April 20, 2011

Your media forecast: Cloudy with a chance of streaming.

Your media forecast: Cloudy with a chance of streaming.
Matthew Panzarino
Story by

Matthew Panzarino

Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter. Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter.

I used to be a dedicated movie collector. At one point I had over 600 DVD’s, most of them special editions or Criterion Collection releases. Sometimes I would just walk in and look at it, sipping a beverage and running my finger down the titles to select one to watch.

Now, I have less than half a dozen discs sitting on my shelf, yet my library is bigger than ever. Why? The cloud.

Clouds everywhere.

It seems that you can’t wave a mouse around without hearing something about the cloud these days. It’s a buzzword for sure but it actually has a very basic meaning. Cloud computing allows you to access services and media over the internet at a moment’s notice.

With a cloud setup, there is no need to collect large amounts of media on your shelves or on your hard drive. Instead, someone else hosts the media and you simply access it ‘on-demand’. You can do this from practically anywhere with an internet connection.

It bears mentioning that you can actually ‘roll your own’ cloud solution by hosting the files on your own always-on computer at home and accessing the files from elsewhere, the principle is the same.

Most people will be using cloud services provided to them by companies though, and many are doing just that now. If you’ve ever used Netflix or Amazon video-on-demand then you’ve been using a form of cloud computing already.

Can you get what you need from the cloud?

When I got rid of my DVD collection much of what I had collected was not yet available to me elsewhere. Now, I can scroll through the list of what I had and pick out just about any movie, pop online and find that very film to watch through one of the many movie services now operating.

This ability is near universal at this point. Anyone with a computer and a spare $8 bucks a month can access Netflix and its large, if dated, library of movies and TV. It’s hard to justify a physical collection of movies any more.

But what about hot new releases? The last bastion of the video store, the new release, has been under attack from on-demand providers for a while now. What used to be called the ‘rental window’ is now the ‘cable window’. But that landscape is changing, quickly.

Once the period set aside for Best Buy or Target to sell as many discs as possible has passed, there’s a good chance those releases now go to Amazon or iTunes rather than to a cable company for several months worth of exclusivity. Some of those deals are in place but many of them are eroding quickly.

If you like access to hot new movies, music or TV as soon as they come to market, you may not be completely satisfied with online video yet, but you will. The cloud marches on and soon it will be the default first destination of new release media, not physical disc.

How do you solve a problem like bandwidth?

One of the major hurdles for the cloud is the adoption of high-speed internet. Currently less than 39% of households in the US have what the government considers broadband internet.

Only a moderately fast connection is necessary to consume media like YouTube videos and images from the web, but if you want to stream HD quality movies and high quality sound to homes, you’re going to need fat pipes.

The adoption of broadband is a genuine concern for those companies that are looking to provide media through the cloud to consumers, but there’s a more interesting statistic that makes providing cloud services attractive now. It turns out that among active internet users, the broadband penetration is near 95%. If people are using the internet, they’re finding a way to get a fast connection.

This widespread adoption of broadband means that cloud services are becoming more popular than ever with people looking to consume media without actually having to own any physical copies.

Questions of ownership.

The word ‘own’ does bring up some interesting questions about delivering media from the cloud.

When you purchase a bit of media from a service like iTunes that downloads that movie or song from their servers to yours, you just obtained an actual bit of goods. The song or movie isn’t physical of course, it’s just on your computer, but it’s still in your possession.

Consider a different scenario. We’ll use the Amazon cloud player as an example because it’s been in the news lately.

If you purchase an album from Amazon and you subscribe to it’s Cloud Drive service, that music doesn’t come to you. By default it goes to Amazon’s servers. At this point in time you could choose to download that music to your hard drive as well, but it’s not hard to imagine a future where most people will simply leave it and play it from there on-demand over the internet.

The case has been made, notably in a recent episode of The Talk Show by host Dan Benjamin and co-host John Gruber, that Amazon doesn’t actually store a separate copy of your file to your Cloud Drive. Instead they simply reference a file already on their servers, allowing you access to it.

The consequences are that you don’t actually even have a digital copy that’s yours, simply the rights to access it.

For you cloud storage nerds, this is also the way that Dropbox works. You can see this in action when you upload a huge file to Dropbox and it seems to finish in seconds rather than hours.

What this means is that at some point you will likely have no option to own an actual physical copy of your media and will instead be paying just for the right to access it.

This is a primary reason so many of these services are going to a subscription model. You have to continuously pay to access your media, if you stop, anything that you’ve collected is gone forever.

More media than you can shake a stick at.

The benefits aren’t all on the side of the providers however. Aside from tricky questions about who owns what you watch, the cloud stands to give us access to more media than we could ever collect.

My former collection of movies pales in comparison to the offerings that Amazon and Netflix have and to the content that iTunes could provide if Apple ends up offering a cloud solution in the future.

I absolutely love old movies and not all of the ones that I enjoy are what most people would consider ‘classic’. Netflix is a great way to catch up on older cult hits like Johnny Mnemonic or Police Academy. Amazon has newer movies at a bit of a premium but it also has a solid selection of B movies that are fun to watch in the background.

Apple really has the potential to crack this cloud thing wide open though. As they were the driving force behind the monetization and sale of digital music online, they could also be the hammer that splits the cloud media market wide open.

It doesn’t hurt that Apple has over 200 million credit card numbers on file, ready to be used for a subscription cloud service at the click of a button.

If Apple is able to negotiate and deliver a solid cloud solution, perhaps one subscription fee for all-you-can-eat music or movies, the future of the cloud is sealed. With almost 190 million iOS devices sold worldwide, you can imagine that the demand for such a service would be astronomical.

The future of media in the cloud.

There’s very little question that most internet users will be getting a large portion of their media from cloud services in the future. It’s already a lucrative business for companies like Netflix and Amazon who make a tidy profit on subscriptions from users who need access to ‘their’ content.

The tradeoff of many cloud services is the access to an enormous amount of content, delivered on-demand, but a loss of physical ownership.

I sold off my collection of DVD’s well before the cloud computing revolution. Largely because it took up a lot of space and I was honest about how much I really watched most of those movies.

Now though, I find myself excited again about the amount of content I have at my fingertips and as I was able to give up on the concept of owning those physical discs long ago, I’m not really all that concerned with owning cloud content that I subscribe to.

Sure, I can’t run my finger down the row of spines, waiting for something to pique my interest, but the sheer amount of options available and the immediacy of delivery makes it more likely that I’ll actually find something that does.

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