Friday, March 5, 2010

DECE and the cloud

The cloud adds mobility and interactivity to thin client computing, making it more energy and resource efficient to maintain than expensive software and document libraries on personal hard-drives. In theory at least, we should all be able to access a single copy of a book or movie, dramatically reducing the spiralling costs of proliferating, transporting and storing them locally. Even at high bandwidth, streaming is cheaper than downloading, and downloading media-rich files is the biggest drain on net resources.

Unfortunately, the cloud is also open to copyright, and in many respects makes it simpler. The recent DECE initiative shows why. A key problem has been the vast variety of formats and platforms on which consumers want to access movies, games, TV, sports and music, from tiny mobile phone screens to 1280 domestic high-definition and 3D. DECE, the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem, provides a solution. With a membership including Adobe, Microsoft, Comcast, Lionsgate, NBC Universal, Netflix, Panasonic, Paramount, Sony, and \Warner Bros. alongside most of the major chip, home entertainment and mobile phone manufacturers, DECE is a one-stop shop for all formats. Servers will deliver streaming video in the appropriate codecs for any platform for a single license payment. Not quite a monopoly – Disney is holding out for its own KeyChest alternative, possibly in alliance with Apple (whose Steve Jobs is also Disney's largest shareholder thanks to his involvement in Pixar) – DECE removes the risks associated with ownership of hardcopies, entrenching the limitation on rights purchasers of video have compared to other goods. It also provides tracking of users' viewing habits for commercial onselling. As long as we remain entrenched in the individualist ethos of the old disciplinary capital, we will be concerned with privacy; only when we learn to mistrust the database economy of the network will we learn to question the crowdsourcing that DECE, in this sense like Google, commercialises.

The likely upshot? DECE is an attempt to counter an unusual phenomenon in file-sharing: even when free downloads like Radiohead's In Rainbows is available, interactors still prefer to use Limewire and BitTorrent. Free still outsells cheap, and anonymous still outbids tracked. Just as the IPv6 transition threatens the universal internet, so the cloud, while offering the platform capable of delivering a universal library, is likely to split the internet between legitimate and illegitimate distribution. Meanwhile the sheer volatility of the hardware market, reluctance to pay twice for the same product (the vinyl I bought in 1980), anger at badly designed DRM restrictions (like DVD regional formatting and smartphones tied to unpopular service suppliers), the pleasures of sharing among peers, and the threat of legislation allowing searches of hard discs will lead more people to store more media-rich files on more clouds. Result: increased storage and transmission demands, lower efficiency, more format wars and hacker escalations. Ideally the cloud should lead to greater efficiency, but in conditions of the struggle between market and network, it will not. In the process it may terminally damage the future of the internet.