The Digital Desert Island

Posted on February 28, 2011 by psu

The other day I accidentally reset the music that I sync into my iPhone. As I result, I had to wait for a long while for iTunes to copy all the music back into the phone where I had inadvertently deleted it. As it copied track after track it occured to me that the iPod/mp3/iTunes/digital music era has made something that used to be a mainstay of lazy music writing completely irrelevant: the desert island record list.

You know the drill. Suppose while traveling you are stranded on a desert island with no way back to civilization. But, this island somehow has an independent source of infinite electricity, and you happened to pack your LP record player and some albums for your trip. Of course, since you were on a trip you can only carry ten records. Which records do you take?

Or maybe this variation: you are about to be abducted by aliens, but they will let you take as much of your music collection as you can carry. Which ten records do you take along?

Back in the 1990s, these sorts of questions made sense. This is because several hundreds of hours of music would require an entire wall of storage to hold the disks. But in the new digital era, those same hundreds of hours of music now fit in your pocket. Furthermore, in less space that it used to require to hold those ten LP records you can carry a portable hard drive that can not only hold the content of all of your music, but probably all of your books, movies, magazine archives, and every web page you ever read since the web was invented. The infinite scalability of digital storage has rendered the entire question of what to take with you completely irrelevant. You just take everything. So don’t worry about that desert island, or those pesky aliens. You will not be bored.

This is the fundamental theorem of digital content: scarcity does not create value. Scarcity just pisses off your customer. Your customer is now expecting to be able to buy and consume your product anywhere and any time she pleases. Furthermore, if you stand in the way of this expectation, she will just leave and find something else because she is carrying the entire library of everything ever published in her pocket.

In other words, there are no digital desert islands.

It’s been my observation lately that in the modern content marketplace there are two kinds of vendors: those who understand this thought experiment and those who do not. The music industry tried to ignore this truth, and they were crushed. The movie industry is trying its hardest to ignore this truth, and it seems to me that they are probably on the way down as well. Book publishers are also being shown the truth, and reluctantly starting to play along. The only modern player that I can think of that ignores this rule and gets away with it is the NFL. But off-shore streams or armies of people with Slingboxes might yet defeat that dragon as well.

The industry that actually got me thinking about this was comic books. I read the occasional superhero comic book when I was in junior high school, but my interest in them had largely waned as I became an adult. This changed when I got my iPad. The comic book reader on the iPad is great. It is one of the most perfect marriages of hardware and software to a particular style of content that the world has yet seen. It could not be any better, unless you have some emotional attachment to actually turning the pages, or actually looking at ink on paper.

However, there is one catch: the comic book industry does not actually want you, the iPad user, as a customer. They want to continue to sell comics the old way. My main evidence for this conclusion comes from having interacted with the iPad reader, and comixology off and on for the last eight months or so. If you try and use these outlets, the first thing you notice is that the availability of various titles is spotty, and that at best they come out several months to a year after the same titles come out in print. What’s clear from the beginning is that the comics industry has not shaken its general prejudice against delivering their content in digital form. They see it as a second class revenue stream which is not really worth their full attention. In other words, if you want to read comics primarily on your iPad, you are not dedicated enough to be a customer that they will pay attention to.

The comics people don’t even seem to be comfortable with the middle ground of me finding and ordering print versions of the comics in their electronic storefronts. If you hit “buy in print” in the iPad apps you get an interface that just shows you the phone number and address of near by comic book stores at which you can buy the book. They don’t even have the decency to send you to

The Marvel and Comixology web sites are not much better. Assuming you can figure out how to navigate to the book you want to buy neither site seems to do any direct sales. Or, if they do I could not find the interface for it, so it amounts to the same thing. In addition, the registration and account management workflows on these sites is like something out of e-commerce circa 1997. The Marvel site is so bad that I couldn’t even change my contact information in their database without sending e-mail to a customer support professional to have them do it.

Over and over again the message is clear. They want you to go to the comic book store and pick up the carefully packaged little book still in its plastic baggie. They want to require you to build some trumped up relationship with a store-owner with questionable personal hygiene habits in order to have the right to consume their content. In other words, they still think limiting the distribution of their content increases its value, when really all it does is make new customers like me give up again. Time will tell if they are right. But I think that they should try harder to understand the digital desert island theorem. So far everyone else who has ignored it has lost.