Life on Demand

It started the way most good things do, with something simple.  A few years ago cable stations started offering movies on demand.  You paid for it and it was immediately streamed to your television set at any time you wanted.  It didn’t seem like much at the time, but now it’s clear that this was the start of something beautiful.

We’ve been claiming for years that we live in the “Digital Age” but it hasn’t been until recently that this statement has proven true.  Right now, all around the world, books are being scanned page by page in order to make the information found therein easier to categorize, locate, and share.  Family vacation pictures and great works of art can also be found facedown on scanners as private citizens and world-renown art galleries work to preserve the things that are important to them.

The reasoning behind it is simple – digital content can be replicated almost instantaneously and usually at no cost at all.  This means that all of our content can be more easily shared with friends and family, even if those friends and family members live across the globe.  Instead of simply showing your mother a picture of her new grandson, you can send email her a copy so she has her own to look at anytime she wants.

It is because of this trend towards instant gratification that the on-demand services have taken off.  If I’m walking across New York City at three AM and decide that I want to hear “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, I can tap a few keys on my cell phone and have that song streamed directly to my phone so I can feel tough as I cross that next dark corner.  If I’m away on business and using someone else’s computer, I want to be able to access familiar software to do my work.  Now I can access full-featured word processors and spreadsheet software online anywhere I go.  Not only can I use this software for free, it remembers my preferences and settings, streamlining the creative process.

And while these things are available now, there are two new on-demand services that will change their respective markets forever. 

The first of these is the DVD on-demand service.  We’ve all been in the mood to watch a particular movie and we’ve driven down to Blockbuster or our favorite mom-and-pop video store and been disappointed to find that they didn’t have the movie in stock.  The solution comes in the form of kiosks placed throughout town where you can go, select the movie you want from a catalog that could potentially contain every movie ever made, and pay to have the kiosk burn the movie onto a blank DVD for you.  Then you can drive home happy because you haven’t wasted a trip.

Because the entire video store is, in essence, in the kiosk, costs for these DVDs can be kept low.  You don’t need fancy packaging, the company doesn’t have a lease to pay, and the fact that the DVDs are made only when they’re needed keeps the overhead down on having to keep their store stocked.  The convenience of being able to pick up the movie whenever you want also beats out the currently popular video-by-mail model because there’s no waiting.

The only thing limiting the library size of these kiosks is the amount of data storage in each.  The more drive space, the more movies that can be kept available for quick burning and with a high speed internet network connection, additional movies can be downloaded to the kiosk when a less popular choice is made.  Eventually the technology will be available at home, where you can stream an encrypted stream to your home computer and pop a DVD into your burner and have your very own copy of whatever movie you chose after paying online.

The second technology, print-on-demand, is one that hasn’t yet made any moves towards becoming mainstream, but which I feel is just around the corner.  The advantages here are clear.  Again, you can have any title ever printed, or at least those that have been digitized, and new titles are digitized immediately upon being released. Titles that are in the public domain, such as works by Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain, can be printed at-cost or at a very small profit, making them affordable by anyone.  And because publishing will happen right at the point of sale, anyone at all will be able to submit their work to join the massive catalog of works to be printed, opening up the dream of writing the great American novel to anyone at all.

I predict we’ll see the DVD-on-demand kiosks within the next year and they’ll become more and more popular as the decade closes.  The print-on-demand model will take some time, but as book retailers see the advantage in having every title available for their customers, they’ll begin installing them in their stores.  The bookstore will always be a place to lounge on comfy seats and read your favorite book, but very soon you’ll be holding a custom copy fresh from the oven.


~ by Walter on October 2, 2007.

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