On the transformation of everyday culture in an era of liquid modernity

The video iPod: Apple restrains the consumer choice of content

In marketing on November 16, 2005 at 10:40 pm

The new video iPod is not only a lauded status symbol, but also the ultimate symbol for how there in recent years has been a reformation in the multinational media conglomerations’ strategy for getting consumers to exclusively download conventional content. With the new iPod, hardware controls the selection of media content in subtle ways, argues Jonas Andersson, media researcher at Goldsmiths College in London.

The new version of the Apple iPod is radically different from its predecessors in that it facilitates video playback. On today’s semi-legal and illegal file-sharing networks, video files are as commonplace as music files, and Apple has obviously responded to this fact in the design of this widely appraised entertainment appliance. As a result, the iPod video capacity is directly limited to two digital formats: MPEG-4 and Apple’s own, recently launched H.264. They do not support for example the DivX format which is a common one for illegally downloaded, so called “ripped” files. To watch your own holiday movies, or digitally recorded TV programs, or free, illegally downloaded films, these need to be converted into one of the two aforementioned formats – a time-consuming, complicated procedure. This can be done through Apple’s Quicktime video software, but the process does not make it less cumbersome to install, transfer and watch non-commercial material, compared to that which is offered through the proprietary iTunes online store. (See here for a fierce critique of the iTunes concept.)

We see here a very ingenious distribution model. Through designing hardware (the actual iPod) which is highly desirable, a status symbol for all generations, a brand cult is created, alongside a product which is hardly counterfeited or imitated. A pool of auxiliary accessories, services and companies serve to create a lifestyle around the little portable white one. What is doubly clever, though, on top of this flora of hardware, is the confinement of software (the actual media content) outlined above. This is a deliberate strategy.
Multinationals know by now that global file-sharing is happening on an immense scale, and on the whole impossible to halt. In true capitalist spirit, a pragmatic approach to the problem is adopted: fight back where possible, on the fronts that are practically available, primarily through lobbying legislators and through fierce PR campaigns where the current Western system of copyright is depicted as the only guarantor for high-quality, just and responsible cultural production (a thesis that is increasingly mistrusted by many and whose sharpest critics are found among libertarian, Internet-based movements like Creative Commons, Free Culture and Downhill Battle). Direct attacks, coordinated by industry and police against individuals, are kept to a sort of calculated minimum, where enough individuals are held to hopefully act as deterring examples but where the total amount of charges is limited, partly due to costs, partly because of the risk of casting the industry in too despotic a light and thereby harm valuable brands.

The idea of DRM, Digital Rights Management – a system that was seriously debated during the late nineties – has apparently also been partially abandoned, on similar grounds. A completely waterproof DRM system, in other words a hardware filter in your computer that blocks everything but the material approved by the entertainment industry, would be seen as outrageously repressive by most consumers; a veritable Stasi network for the 21st century with Hollywood, rather than Kremlin, as its ideological foundation. Such a system would in practice mean insurmountable amounts of badwill for these companies, and instead the prescribed solution becomes a form of control through persuasion rather than force.
Therefore this latest model of the Apple iPod (an alternative example could be Sony’s new portable Playstation and its miniature DVD format UMD). Here, the hardware – whose reproduction the industry still can control – works as limiting factor for the software that can be played back on the machine. The customer is still allowed a great measure of freedom; you can play more or less whatever material you want on this machine, but since this freedom is in practice put within a very limited material frame, the question is if this freedom is more illusory than radical. Only customers with competence and energy to convert and tinker with content will do so, but the plan is that most users choose the strictly commercial bulk of content, simply due to reasons of comfort.
In the debate around regulation of digital broadcasting, this strategy goes under the tagline conditional access. Through a strongly privatised, individualised consumption, often on a contractual or subscriber basis, the customer is led (as opposed to forced – the semantic difference here is central to my argument) to only choose one particular type of content, based on hardware (type of set-top box) and owner structure (type of channel package).
Instead of a model of completely free choice, where any program desired would be available, the choice is rather between already predefined menus of content. The illusion of free choice remains, while the degree of control on the side of the producer/distributor actually is astonishing, seen from the perspective of the modern digital media consumer. Ten years of Internet culture has fostered an attitude among users which is deeply critical of this: imagine how dull the Internet would be if all content was controlled by a handful media corporations. At the same time, television has always been organised like this. The distribution model for the video iPod puts these two diametrically opposed media structures in clinch next to each other. It is an exciting prospect: what happens next might become formative for how portable audiovisual content will be consumed in the future.

The introduction of this machine – admittedly, an impressive object in terms of invention, engineering and design – is part of an orchestrated campaign to sell not only the actual object but also its future content, as well as the associations and lifestyle this entails. The industry is thus with carrot rather than stick trying to persuade the consumer, through pursuing an illusion of the future of our common digital distribution structure as a predictable, safe, comfortable, sterile sphere where cash money rather than technical skill and capricious joy of discovery will buy you happiness.

Earlier published 5 November 2005 in Swedish newspaper Ny Teknik.

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