Aaron Shapiro

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The Last Thing You'll Ever Own

Originally published in Mediapost, August 10, 2010

Before my wife gave birth to our second son Benjamin, I spent a weekend reorganizing our home to make room for even more baby gear and toys. As I packed up boxes of old books, CDs circa 1996 and DVDs I'll never watch, it hit me. This is the last media I'll ever truly own.

By media I own, I mean copies of books, movies and music that I store myself, can throw away and can lend to a friend. Collecting is part of the ownership experience, as is organizing it, and selling it when I'm ready for something new. The concept of ownership has been eroding ever since iTunes' Digital Rights Management. Granted DRM was what gave media companies the confidence to allow Apple to start selling their products online. But the tradeoff was the beginning of the end for conventional ownership. With iTunes and now books for the Kindle and Nook, consumers buy a media file that they can call their own. It's then stored on buyers' personal hard drives and can be organized and consumed at the owners' will. But for the most part, because of DRM, these files are restricted. Buyers can only play it on a small number of computers and sharing it with friends is difficult if not impossible-two big knocks against the traditional concept of ownership. In the case of music, these limitations proved unpopular enough that Apple successfully convinced media companies to remove DRM. But for all other forms of content: DRM lives.

Enter Google Editions. This summer, Google is expected to launch Google Editions, an e-book marketplace where purchased books will live in the cloud, not stored on any particular device. Google Editions will be able to be accessed anytime from any device with an Internet connection. It means never accidentally leaving your book at home again. Left off reading at page 100 on your tablet? Pick up where you left off from your office laptop. Stuck offline? As long as the book has been purchased and access already, it will be saved in the browser's cache, PC Magazine has reported. This gives consumers unheard of freedoms, but it also means the user doesn't actually own the book in anywhere near the traditional sense. In the world of cloud storage, the user just has access to it. And heaven help all Google Editions book purchasers if one day Google Editions goes away.

Several media services already stream from the cloud: Netflix for movies; Pandora, Rhapsody, Grooveshark and others for music; Hulu for TV; website content in general fits this model. These services all trade lack of conventional ownership with convenience from the cloud. And this trend appears to be accelerating. Apple is building a leviathan data storage center in North Carolina that's unlikely to be used just for MobileMe. As Tech Crunch reporter MG Siegler recently wrote, "iTunes in the Cloud Anyone?" Plus, prices on tablets and smart phones are dropping. This means an increasing number of people will be carrying around screens that they can use for cloud-based media consumption. Our albums are becoming playlists. Our DVD collections are becoming queues. Our products are turning into services. Ownership is turning into access. And we will just keep moving further on this course.

Benjamin, my new son, will never understand the traditional concept of owning a book, a movie or an album. His media will be stored in the cloud, not on a shelf or even on his hard drive. It may be up to me to break open some dusty boxes and show him what he's missing.