Changing the way I consume media

“Owning” media used to be about buying the CD, or the DVD and adding it to your collection. I have a large CD and DVD collection as a result. Even when people were raving about downloadable music, I always went out to buy the CD. If it wasn’t “in the collection”, it didn’t feel mine. I also appreciate the finer things, such as the sleeve design, etc. Same for DVDs, buying a box-set feels a special experience, particularly if the box-set has had some thought put into the design.

But, there is an awful lot of media out there, and I only have so much money and space. Buying every film you hear may be good is one thing, but affording it and storing it (if you even watch it again) is another.

The model was “want it, own it” or “not interested”.

So our household has been switching models. Firstly, we decided to stop buying DVDs on recommendations/whim/preference so we don’t unnecessary bloat to an already bloated collection. We get a lot of recommendations for films, we miss out on an awful lot of films that are regarded as “required viewing” for film fans, so we decided to switch to a rental model. We currently use LoveFilm for this. This was a revelation, now we only invest in DVDs as part of a series (say, Doctor Who), special box-sets (the latest Alien HD box-set is awesome) or because we truly believe we will get lasting value from watching it (Chris Morris’ Four Lions is excellent). For £7ish a month, we get 5 DVDs.

But times are changing. Now, consumer devices are fighting to give the next level of media consumption: internet-based content. Whether you choose to buy (eg. iTunes music downloads), rent (download a film from Zune Video to watch within the defined period) or stream (true video-on-demand), people are changing and companies need to change with them.

I’ve always been a firm fan of buying CDs. Having digital copies of CDs feels like it weakens my relationship with the artist and the product itself. Having the designed case feels like I have bought something and the physical CD is at least a back-up of my music. Add to that the maze presented by variousDRMmodels and downloadable music in /MP3 or .WMA form becomes a minefield. If I buy music, I want to be able to use it on all my devices (PCs, portable MP3 players, XBox 360, Blu-Ray player).

Having just bought a Windows Phone 7 and – more importantly – Zune Marketplace launching in the UK, the model has changed.

The model is now: “have (love)”, “have (interested)”, “don’t want”.

Using Zune Pass, I can download just about anything and keep it while my subscription lasts. I benefit from being able to listen to “non-essential”, possibly mediocre music without contributing to my collection or bank balance. I can listen to Take That’s new album without buying it because, frankly, I’m not a fan. But I appreciate good song-writing and love him or hate him, Gary Barlow is [mostly] very good at what he does. If I really like an album, I’ll buy the physical copy from Amazon. I’m keeping the music industry alive using both the new and old-skool models.

That just leaves films. While I really like LoveFilm rental, the waiting period often lasts months for films and a film is often not there when you need it. The only realistic modern option is to be able to download or stream it. Zune Marketplace also provides this and having previously streamed HD through my XBox 360, I can confirm it is a very sleek experience. But it’s expensive and is not covered or subsidised by the Zune Pass agreement. The catalogue is also limited.

What is needed is LoveFilm (or even NetFlix) to provide streaming services to the UK market. LoveFilm do provide streaming services, but their output is reported to be poor quality, DVD-quality at best and being computer based really spoils what should be an 11-foot, surround-sound, large screen experience. Yes, they have launched their offering on PS3 machines, but this is now a walled-garden. Why should I invest in a console worth £200+ just to watch LoveFilm films? I have no interest in gaming other than the casual gaming I already enjoy on the XBox 360.

So while I enjoy Nightwish, Take That, My Chemical Romance, Talking Heads and anything else I can get my hands on through Zune, I will be forced to wait for an equivalent offering for films. LoveFilm have said they are “Looking into other devices” but I don’t hold my breath. They seem to have got in to bed with Sony and Samsung and Microsoft consumers (with their already otherwise complete media experience) will be forced to suffer. Alternatively, Zune could increase their catalogue and decrease/subsidise their rental price through Zune Pass. Either way, in austere times, it’s not looking good for LoveFilm unless they act soon.

Looking forward to gadgets

It’s been a good couple of years for Microsoft in terms of products. After the Vista debacle and Office 2007 ribbon complaints, they’ve really turned a corner. They’ve listened to users of all skill levels to produce some cracking products. Yes, I am a Microsoft shill, but unapologetically so. They are a developer company, and I’m a developer – it’s a natural fit. Windows 7 was sublime, Visual Studio 2010 is “just right” and Office 2010 seems to have finally grown into its new ribbon UI (shame it has only just seen to supporting open data formats such as oData and .ICS).

There’s more to come, though. I’m excited about 2 products in the pipeline.

The first out is Windows Phone 7. What was the Windows Mobile platform suffered from Microsoft’s insistence that they should put the desktop on a mobile phone. Clearly, they were wide of the mark and it is odd it took them so long to realise this. Arrogance, I guess. The only benefit I can see of the iPhone – kicking innovation into what was becoming a stale market. The Windows Phone 7 platform is integrated with Facebook, is developer friendly and offers integration with XBox Live. Oh and Zune finally makes it to the UK – a DRM model that I could just get on with. The hard part is waiting for the right model to be launched – with a keyboard. If you want me to spend anytime with your smart phone, it needs a keyboard. Having seen the reviews and videos of the device, I look forward to that “Oh, that’s very cool” moment. Many phones offer integration with social media and a rich experience, but are scuppered by lack of support for Flash (need I say?), awkward user interfaces (BlackBerry) or under-powered processors (Nokia). Windows Phone 7 seems to be a best alternative to these and offers an open development platform, which is a refreshing change.

The second product is Kinect, formerly “Project Natal”. This has been in gestation for a few years both within Microsoft and in the original product developer, 3DV Systems. Microsoft have struck gold in their XBox Live and Arcade gaming platforms, gaming is now no longer just for the serious gamer. Buy an XBox and you can immediately start playing cheap and highly-playable games from the Arcade and involve the entire family. The so called “casual gamer” represents a serious opportunity and I regard myself in that group as someone who loses interest in games as soon as it gets hard! Even so, with the traditional Control Pad input mechanism, it still feels like a special language is needed to play the games. Kinect removes this barrier, allowing interaction with the games using your body as a controller. In truth, we’ve seen this before, the Playstation Eye Toy was a great product and a smart web cam to boot (if you could locate the drivers for Windows). But that’s not where Kinect is going to stay. Steve Ballmer was reported to (possibly annoying other product departments) say that Kinect is the most significant development for Microsoft this year, maybe because while Kinect is starting out in the home, it will soon become integrated into your Windows and Office experience. Authenticating and controlling Windows suddenly becomes more accessible for the disabled and “regular” user, Office becomes easier to navigate through large spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, etc. and video conferencing gets better thanks to the directional microphone-array (captions over people’s heads, anyone?).

That’s not to say Microsoft haven’t missed the mark or opportunity on other products, though. The Kin phone was a surprise and seemed to be a typical example of the company competing with itself. Luckily enough, it was canned weeks after but not before a shuffle of senior management. The XBox 360 has recently been redesigned to give it a fresh image in line with the Kinect. The price is attractive, the hard drive bigger and it has wireless – but so what? Still no Blu-Ray player, a real shame as Blu-Ray is starting to get traction – because of the PS3. Sony are giving the same kick to the Blu-Ray market as they did with the DVD market when they included a DVD player in the PS2. Clever – and obvious. And where are the Windows 7 slates? Seems odd considering Windows 7 is touch optimised in so many ways. Maybe (and probably) it is because putting a desktop OS on a battery-powered device is never going to work, surely one of Microsoft’s several embedded OS implementations would suffice? I sometimes feel like I should apologise for the stupidity of Microsoft in its product launches, but I guess when you’re as big as Microsoft, it’s slow to move and competing products within its mass would be inevitable.

UK: Have Microsoft fallen out with us?

The UK is widely regarded as being one of the key countries the drive
innovation in technology. Indeed, the computer was invented in the UK, in
Manchester. Obviously, much of the innovation now occurs in America. With the
signifcantly larger population and economy it provides  natural wealth of
resources for development of products and the eventual testing and purchase of
products. Companies like Microsoft often launch primarily in the US and then
“roll out” across the world. The UK doesn’t tend to fall too far behind in this

Recently, however, we appear to have been given a distinct cold shoulder by

The XBox Dashboard was recently significantly improved, using a
CoverFlow-style interface with a customisable avatar. It looks and works like a
dream. The US also got the benefit of integration of the Netflix service onto
the XBox dashboard. Now, not only does the XBox Video Marketplace allow
downloading of HD-quality films for watching at leisure, using the Netflix
service users can stream HD-movies at any time – no need to wait for the
download to occur. Netflix do not operate in the UK, so we don’t get this. Why
don’t they arrange something with, who offer a similar

The rival MP3 player from Microsoft, Zune, has never been available in the UK
officially. The Zune is intended to compete with the Apple iPod. The iPod is
unfortunately becoming synonymous for this particular technical gadget but there
is so much more to this market than just iPods. Creative and many other vendors
create MP3 players with a wide variety of features. Microsoft were keen not to
get too far behind on this so launched Zune as a means of listening to music,
but the “USP” was the ability to share music with your friends and buy music
wirelessly using the Zune Marketplace. Your Zune ID was the same as your Windows Live ID which is the same as your XBox Live ID, creating a real ecosystem of identity and technologies. Obviously, for Marketplace to exist in the UK, deals would have to be done in the UK which Microsoft don’t seem to be too bothered about. Maybe it is because the market is too small. As the Zune product is
developed, we see the Zune HD now has HD Radio, a technology the UK foolishly
did not adopt, instead we adopted DAB which is poorer quality than FM (in
practice). So they are pushing us further out of the door, reducing the glimmer
of hope that they may just change their minds in the future. The UK is left in
the clutches of Apple.

At the recent E3 Gamers conference, Microsoft announced a number of exciting
new features for the XBox. One of which was the rebranding of the Video
Marketplace which allows the downloading of videos form the XBox servers at a
small fee. This will be rebranded as “Zune Marketplace”. Indeed, the XBox itself
already provides some degree of integration with Zune devices. Where does this
leave the UK? Will we receive this branding and how will it afect us other than
a few colour changes on the XBox dashboard? Again we don’t know where the UK
will stand.

Microsoft Money is being abandoned (Guardian article), due largely to the success of the Quicken product by Intuit. Microsoft have committed to help users migrate to Quicken as part of a programme of future versions. Unfortunately, Intuit abandoned the UK years ago, so where does this leave UK Money users in need of budget accountancy software?

Hulu has been added to the Windows Media Centre, allowing access to their wide variety of video content direct from your PC or Media Centre environment. Hulu is not available anywhere other than the US. Media Centre content such as Extras which can include content direct from channels is also excluded from UK use. We used to have BBC content, but they pulled it when they reviewed their digital content output. Obviously this is not Microsoft’s fault but I think there needs to be
some effort made in replacing and securing new content for UK users.