Make it easy for people to get content, says Barry Fox. Don’t over-engineer delivery methods to produce higher quality that the consumer doesn’t care about.
Every month or so I check out TPB, The Pirate Bay, a Swedish website that uses fiendishly clever internet peer-to-peer software to let people round the world download movies for free.
TPB does not provide pirate content, it just puts people who want to download movies for free in touch with other people who have copies on their PCs and are happy to let others make free copies. There is no central store and everyone remains anonymous unless a court of law orders Internet Service Providers to identify users.
The Motion Picture Association of America has been working for years, and spent a fortune on legal bills, trying to shut the site down. The last time I looked, a couple of days ago, Pirate Bay was still up and running, searchable by Google and helping rippers share content.
In late April a UK Court said ISPs must block it. Doubtless the ISPs will try to do as the Court says, but – as protesters in the Middle East have recently proved – internet blocks can usually be bypassed by anyone with will and skill; and similar sites will try to fill any vacuum the law creates. [TPB was also hit in mid May by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which took the site down for about 24 hours, during which time users were advised by TPB itself not to attempt to access the site using proxies.]
I suspect many people in the industry have not actually tried using TPB, either because they don’t know how or because they worry about being identified and losing their industry job. This is a pity because they miss the chance to discover that using The Pirate Bay is not easy. It needs a fair bit of computer skill, and takes a lot of time and hassle.
To steal a copy of Movie XYC the copyright thief first has to install so-called ‘torrent’ peer-to-peer file sharing software, such as the free program ‘µTorrent’. This then uses a link found through a routine Google search for ‘Movie XYC Pirate Bay’ to connect with private PCs round the world that are already storing Movie XYC on their hard drives. But using the link, without inadvertently downloading unwanted software, needs care and experience.
The thief’s PC then downloads bits of Movie XYC from many other PCs and stitches them together into a final version. When the download is complete the PC starts uploading bits to other people’s PCs. So the movie thief is not only receiving but distributing stolen goods. Apart from moral and legal issues, this means that the PC may be slowed down. If the broadband service is ‘capped’ rather than ‘unlimited’, the monthly data allowance may well be exceeded, with a heavy cost penalty payable to the ISP.
The download will very likely take all day and often all night too. The final result, usually an MPEG-4/MP3 AVI (Audio Video Interleaved) file, will often be of sub-DVD quality. Although the file is ready to play on a PC, it will need converting and copying to watch on a TV or mobile.
Blank DVDs are cheap but burning a movie file to a blank, so that it will play on a consumer DVD player, needs multimedia software, such as Nero or Roxio. More skill is needed, and more time. Burning will take around an hour. Very likely the final disc will not have chapters, so can only be played straight through, with pausing and fast-forwarding the only navigation options.
Why would anyone want to do all this, if the movie is on sale at the very low prices now charged for DVDs? As Jason Berman used to say when he headed up industry trade bodies the RIAA and IFPI, “I can’t compete with free.”
Not even the professional pirates can compete with free. When did you last see a man in a pub or skulking on a street corner offering counterfeit DVDs? People are downloading for free instead of buying burned pirate copies.
Sooner or later TPB, and other sites like it, will probably be banished. After the US take-down of Megaupload, the writing is on the wall. ISPs will be forced by law to bar sites and/or identify persistent users. Google is under pressure to block searches. This will re-create the market for pirate discs, but also create new opportunities for legitimate sales. But sales of what? That’s the 64,000 bit question.
Will people pay for HD quality from Blu-ray discs or settle for lower quality and the instant convenience of streaming direct to a Smart TV from services like LoveFilm or Netflix?
Here it pays to remember the many formats that have failed because they over-estimated the public’s interest in quality.
The Philips Compact Cassette was a winner because it was so darned easy to use. Dolby B curbed some of the hiss and Sony’s Walkman made music portable. More powerful noise reduction systems, such as dbx and Dolby C, made no real difference either way. Improved formats like the Elcaset sank without trace.
The cassette only disappeared when digital portables offered fewer (or no) moving parts, smaller size, longer playing time and rapid random access track searching. The quality of MP3 is often worse than cassette.
It was the glorious convenience of CD that made it a commercial winner over vinyl: more than an hour on a single side, easy track selection and fast search skipping, no stylus to clean or replace, magical resistance to dust, dirt and minor scratches, and no more taking warped crackly vinyl back to the shop for a fight over just-as-bad-replacements.
The fact that CD made even budget music systems sound better, was a bonus, not the Unique Selling Point.
The Digital Compact Cassette promised CD-or-even-better quality but flopped miserably. DCC still had all the inconveniences of analogue cassette – slow access and limited playing time – plus the added disadvantage of extra cost.
The iPod and iTunes trounced Sony’s Digital Walkmen because Apple did not offer the awful inconvenience of Sony’s SonicStage software and MagicGate DRM.
Promises of far-better-than-CD audio quality from Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio fell on deaf ears; CD is now being replaced by sub-CD quality downloads or streaming from services like Spotify.
No amount of industry propaganda has yet convinced consumers that what they really, really want is better-than-DVD quality. Many Blu-ray discs now come with a free DVD.
At the annual preview to the Berlin IFA show, held recently in Dubrovnik, the message from market research was clear. 3D, with the inconvenience of glasses, has not taken off; and worthwhile no-glasses 3D is still a long way off. Did you know that Toshiba’s no-glasses 3D sets are already on sale in Europe? No. I thought not. Toshiba has been very quiet about sets that cost around £7,000 and deliver primitive results.
The main push this year at IFA in September will be on Smart or Connected TV. A new generation of Wii-style remote controls will let viewers shake, rattle and point their remotes to control a cursor on screen.
What all these sets have in common is the option to stream Pay movies and TV programs. In sub-HD quality – yes – but at the viewer’s convenience.
At another recent industry event, organised in London by the Digital TV Group, staff for one company were all wearing the same T-Shirt. It reminded: The Killer App on TV is Watching Television.