Embracing the Digital Era… Sort of.

Posted by Sandstorm in Offbeat, Tech on July 13th, 2012.
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A Newbie’s first steps into the hell of Digital Distribution.

Digital distribution has come a long way since iTunes launched in 2003. As a huge fan of physical media however, I have ignored digital only purchases with the exception of some Xbox Live Arcade Games or Virtual Console games. That was the case until I went to Canada for a research internship. In order to enjoy myself on the plane and to get through the lonely first few weeks in a new country, I figured I’d treat myself to one of the new iPads. I am a huge fan of everything Full HD so the new retina display (which is verifiably awesome) lured me into this years first big impulse buy. Elated, I put all my anime and Community episodes on the iPad (I will ignore the mp4 problems for now) and enjoyed my trip over the pond to Canada. All was great in iPad land.

Until I started looking into buying a full HD movie in order to fully test my screen….


On the Download Code and How Luggage Restrictions Change Your Mind

So this is where my story of annoyance really starts. The thing I skipped in my introduction was my recollection of the fact that the Bluray I bought of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World back in 2010 was a Triple Play Edition. That means, you get a DVD, Bluray and Digital download so you can watch the movie on all your devices!

Great stuff, right?

Well not so much. It turned out that this download code had an expiration date. Approximately one year after the purchase of this Bluray apparently the need to download a digital copy of the movie expires as well. At that point in time the absurdity of this phenomenon didn’t bother me that much, but in hindsight it is of course utterly stupid. 

So when I came in Canada I still did not own a full HD copy of a movie to see on my iPad. I know probably 99% of any readers out there are screaming at the screen at the moment, asking me (probably very politely) why I didn’t just download the movies.

Well, it just isn’t my way of doing things… I don’t mind paying for products. People made them and people need to get payed. I like to reward the creators of a great product and I like owning things… physical things… That’s why, like I said before, I was never a big fan of digital only purchases.

So when I was in Canada, nearing the end of my One Piece episode list, I was contemplating the possibilities of getting a nice HD movie on my iPad and I figured I could buy a bluray triple pack (DvD + Bluray + Digital). I would have the physical product and I would have a HD movie on my iPad. And hey, I also bought some new CDs in the meantime, so why not buy those…

Well, you see, when you’re abroad for a relatively short period of time (6 months in my case) you cannot buy everything you want. First and foremost, you’ve got the customs problem when you get back. But also the luggage weight restrictions imposed by the airlines are a huge pain. Buying all those Blurays would mean I would encounter some trouble in both of those categories and to make matters worse at the same time I was getting interested in buying some comic books. So that combination would mean some great extra costs…

In order to tackle this problem I just figured that I would embrace the digital era. I was going to make use of all the capabilities of the iPad and I was planning to jump into the world of iTunes, iBooks and the whole shebang. Life was going to be great, easy and wonderful…

Entering the digital Marvel and DC universe

I will start by telling the great, convoluted story of comic purchases on your iPad. You see, I’m a huge comics noob. I love all the new movies coming out and at home I already read some great Batman stories (with The Long Halloween as my favorite). Naturally I was dying to read some new Batman comics and with the whole luggage problem, digital comics seemed the way to go. While I wouldn’t own the books physically, I figured that if the books were cheap enough, it was also quite cool to have a whole on the fly library on your iPad. So I downloaded the DC app and began browsing.

Then something shocked me.

The pricing in the DC app was (and still is) absurd.  For example, take the critically acclaimed Batman Hush. In the DC app the cost for each individual issue is €1.60. For issues that are about 35 pages each, this seems reasonable or maybe a tad expensive as they are just digital and old issues. But as I was planning to buy the whole issue, I figured there was going to be a collection price, just like in physical copies.

This was however not the case.

For the complete Hush arc you are expected to pay 12×1.60 = 19.20. As a comparison, printed versions of Batman Hush sell for about €13,10 on amazon.com, allowing for about €5 of shipping to equal the cost of the digital edition. While the difference isn’t much this still is weird. Why would I then settle for a digital version if I can have a nice physical copy in stead. Also the same issue is present for newly released comics. DC’s pricing strategy is asking the same amount for digital comics as their physical counterparts for the first month, and then dropping the price by a dollar. The pricing gets even weirder when you take subscriptions into the equation… like this guy did on his tumblr.

On the Marvel end the same thing is going on but they in fact do sell collections. They aren’t necessarily cheaper though. I bought the Masterworks Volume 1 version of Spider-man, bundling issues 1-10. This costs you 14. Separate issues cost you 1.60 as well, and with 2 free issues in the store right now, you are actually off cheaper buying the issues separately.

The one thing that really bothered me though, was the fact that in the print edition of masterworks, Amazing Fantasy 15 is included. For fellow comic noobs, this issue contained the Spider-Man origin story. The back cover of the digital book clearly states that it is included in the issue as well, but rest assured, it isn’t. Granted, in the Marvel app’s store it does say it only includes Amazing Spider-man 1-10, but it still is strange. Ow and btw, and this same digital issue costs you 8,60 on the iBookstore.

Wait… what?!

Yeah, I didn’t know this and I bought the expensive one… which probably is exactly the same. The same thing is happening with some other books like Masterworks vol.1 of the Avengers,
and some other marvel novels available on the iBookstore. Marvel is selling some of it’s own books cheaper on another company’s app than on their own app.

In fact, Marvel also has a fairly great online subscription deal going on. if you take an annual subscription you can read an unlimited amount of comics for only €4.10 a month (calculated with current dollar exchange rate)! The only catch? This is web only and not available on your mobile devices…

The iTunes movie store

Now, back to my quest to watch HD movies on my great new iPad. To clarify, the following story is based solely on my experience with the Dutch iTunes store. Also I’m fully aware that with some tricks you can in fact buy from the American store (clicky here for a how to in Dutch). I’m going to view this from a legal angle. And on a side note: forcing you to use tricks in order to get the full experience isn’t very consumer friendly.

The first thing that struck me was the complete lack of TV-shows in the Dutch store. Probably this is due to all sorts of issues with rights or the fact that some TV-shows (like The last seasons of Breaking Bad) still need to air on Dutch TV. However, the DVD/Bluray boxsets of some series like House are readily available at Dutch Retailers and even those series aren’t on the Dutch iTunes. What makes matters worse is the availability of movies in the Dutch stores. Some big movies like Memento and even the very popular mainstream RomCom Love Actually arent listed among the movies online as of July 12th 2012. Some reportedly even lack subtitles where others aren’t available in HD… or are they? 

See, that’s another thing. Not every movie has a clear description what the HD format precisely entails. While some movies (the new ones) clearly state the file sizes for a 1080p download and a SD download, in other cases only a file size is given, without explaining if this 720p or 1080p HD. Clarity is in fact important. Dropping €17 for a movie that may or may not be Full HD is a bit of a gamble, especially when you can get a verified Full HD version from amazon.co.uk for only €9,40, as is the case for the movie easy A. Also some movies that have Bluray releases, like Superbad, aren’t available in HD in the iTunes store. Granted, these cost far less. But that doesn’t take away the fact the library isn’t up to par.

And for the perceptive readers among you, yes both of these movies feature the lovely Emma Stone and while I really like her, I’m not prepared to pay shitloads of money for inferior versions of this lovely lady.


The grim future…

As you can tell, I wasn’t very pleased with my first look into the heralded world of Digital Distribution. Unfortunately for me “real” digital distribution (meaning not the iPad/Xbox Live Arcade/Playstation Network kind of games) is making its way to games as well. We of course already had Valve’s Steam handling digital distribution on the PC, but now all the big players on the console market have begun offering downloads of retail games as well, with Nintendo being the latest to jump ship. They are offering their first full retail download on the day of launch with the new New Super Mario Bros. game releasing on 3DS this July.

That says something.

While Nintendo offered downloads in the form of Virtual Console games and has some pretty great games on the eShop, they haven’t fully embraced the online world. The fact that a fairly conservative giant in the gaming world is going in this direction means almost certainly that the digital distribution of games is going mainstream.

Unfortunately these trends have their effects on the state in which physical copies are sold. In stark contrast to a couple of years ago, a lot of games aren’t even shipped with a booklet anymore. The basic game instructions are now given on a small bland insert. Packaging, like that of Diablo III unfortunately is now the exception.

I’m not going to deny the fact that digital products have an advantage over physical copies. Take my example of the luggage restrictions when you’re going on holiday. Also, everyone who is in to portable gaming can probably agree that all the separate cartridges are a pain sometimes. I absolutely love all my digital Virtual Console games and Eshop games like Pushmo on my 3DS, just because I can switch between them so easy. But all those advantages don’t take away the fact that sometimes you just want to read a physical book, or want to have a cartridge that you can lend to a friend or just have a nice library of games, movies or whatever. Physical copies should always be available to those who want them for whatever stupid reason. So, aren’t there ways to cater to all different types of person?

To answer this question let’s take a look at the sector where digital distribution began all those years ago.

…Or the Bright?

While iTunes still charges ridiculous amounts of money for digital albums, some record companies and bands have come up with a model that is an example for all other sectors. Bands like Arcade Fire and Metric give the option to buy either a digital version or a physical version of an album. The digital version is cheaper than the physical version. Not by much, but it is cheaper. The physical version in its turn comes with an instant digital download of the album. In this way, you get a collectors item and the comfort of the digital download. Especially for Vinyl, these are great deals, as you get mp3s for your portable device included in the deal. Collectors get what they want and digital only folk get what they want. It’s great. Now, probably the price for the digital downloads could be lower and not every band is doing stuff like this, but this is the direction in which all sectors should follow.

And they try.

DC comics have implemented a version of this very system, but instead of giving a digital download away for free with the physical copy and dropping the price for the digital release, they decided to charge you extra if you want a physical release with a code. I understand that this probably is done because they want to keep the print, or rather, the indie comic store alive. However, DC’s own subscription plan probably is the biggest enemy of the indie comic store itself as you can read in the link posted somewhere above. Also, the codes are shipped to you with your comic, so the advantage of an immediate download is lost.

In the movies department initiatives are popping up as well. Things like the aforementioned triple pack, or UltraViolet are attempts to implement digital copies in movies. However, just like in comics, these codes ship with your movie. Also there is quite some debate about the user friendliness of UltraViolet, a topic I unfortunately haven’t spent much time on investigating. There certainly are possibilities for the instant download accompanying a physical purchase on an online store however. Amazon has their own instant video service, so they could facilitate a strategy like this fairly easy. If they make Amazon instant video work with mobile devices as well that is…

To wrap things up, I just want to make something clear. I haven’t discussed streaming applications like Netflix and Hulu for two reasons. First, these services aren’t available yet in my region. Secondly, to my (limited) knowledge they involve subscription plans and streaming. So while they are pretty great deals (especially for tv-shows), unfortunately you don’t really get to own anything… But correct me if I’m wrong. Also, apparently a lot of people have no problems with the current system and are making avid use of all the aforementioned models because iTunes still is a great success.

Hopefully though, the system will gravitate towards the model with a cheaper digital only purchase, and more expensive Physical+Digital purchase and all will be well. 
But until that time, unfortunately I will have to make do without a Full HD Emma Stone movie on my iPad. 

Ah… First World Problems.



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