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Consumers still want it hard

Actual copies of things beat the non-physical ones

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Yesterday's HP media survey confirms something many Reg readers passionately believe - hard copies have great value, and they aren't going away any time soon.

Two-thirds of people surveyed want their hard copies of photographs and music, and 90 per cent want books to remain in that very handy paper format that you can read in the bath which has lasted so well for several hundred years. And buying 'real' hard stuff is holding up surprisingly well amongst 16-34s.

We suggested that eventually this habit would die out, as we die out. But I'm more wary than Drew of extrapolating future behaviour from what teenagers do today - simply because habits change so much over a lifetime.

Apart from the very occasional series, I don't think I watched much TV from when I was 15 to until I turned 30. Not many people do. But they value it more than ever as they get older.

You can get a flavour of why people love their hard copies from this mailbag from last year. The CD is now an ancient technology: the spec was nailed down 30 years ago, and the first swanky press conferences for the shiny optical disk were hosted 29 years ago. The CD should been superseded ages ago - but it still endures.

It plays everywhere, on cheap players, no ripping or faffing about with cables (or wireless) is necessary… and it comes with its own backup. There are many other excellent reasons cited, but two things stand out. Digital stuff isn't really very 'real', and it isn't trusted to endure.

(On that score, modern colour prints don't hold up too well either - but let's leave that wrinkle to one side.)

The conveniences of paper are also underestimated. Since paper isn't digital and isn't even electric, it isn't thought of as a technology at all - but of course it is. As I mused a while ago:

If a new technology called PTech were invented today, and promised vastly improved flexibility, durability, convenience, and richness of browsing and reading - as well as ridding books from DRM - it would destroy the Digital Book market overnight. We have PTech today, of course - it's called paper, and it's simply a superior technology.

So have media companies which bought into digital triumphalism got it all wrong? Not quite, since digital affects all media sectors and some more than others. But they could draw a few useful lessons from them.

Unless something is a standard, and that standard is cheap and ubiquitous, then a digital version has no real advantages. It's taken a long time for DRM-free MP3s to become established, but the rest of the infrastructure advantages that allow people to play CDs everywhere just aren't there, even now.

A couple of years ago, I was asked at a private meeting with some VIPs what the music business should do, and my answer got some strange looks - they were too polite to laugh me out of the room. I said people liked physical stuff and it was bordering on criminal negligence not to have come up with a nice new format to replace the CD. Something that embeds the music that's so nice, we actually like to use it. (The other part of the answer was a bit more predictable - license every new technology going, at least experimentally.)

It's probably too late to come up with a new physical format for music, but the thrust of my argument looks quite good, I think. Maybe the 'physical' vehicle for music is a book with a cheap wireless chip, discovery protocol, and a flash card: open it up and it seeks a hi-fi to play the songs. I suggested this example six years ago as an example of just how many things haven't been invented yet that can delight consumers and reward creators.

But the consumer electronics and music industries still look at each other warily over a barbed wire fence, and that simple example is no nearer. ®

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