I am deeply concerned about the direction of technology these days. We've seen a lot of positive advances in the field, many of which have been very beneficial for authors in particular. But there's a word which has been growing in popularity that has made me increasingly nervous.
I'm talking about the "cloud."
For those not familiar, the cloud is a term used to describe offsite data storage. The promotional idea behind it is the simple fact that you would no longer need to worry about storage space, data backup, and physical media. Everything from your saved documents to your video games to your music and movies would be stored on a server somewhere else, giving you virtually limitless data storage and media access.
That's how companies like Microsoft and Apple want you to see it, anyway.
I see a far different reality in the not-so-distant future.
Several years back, Microsoft introduced Xbox Live. While not the first online gaming service for home consoles, it was certainly the most complete package available at that time. With it came promises of eventual downloadable content (or DLC) that could extend the life of your games with patches, new levels, additional characters, and much more - for a price. DLC didn't really take off until the Xbox 360 was released.
When it started, DLC was in no way a requirement. Games were shipped complete, and any DLC available was simple; they'd provide a new horse for your in-game character or maybe a novelty arena for a hockey game. DLC cost money, but anyone not interested in paying for it didn't really miss out on anything significant.
Fast forward to today. DLC has become more and more prevalent and, in some cases, almost necessary. You can get additional characters for Street Fighter. There are additional missions for Mass Effect. New multiplayer maps are frequently released for most popular shooters. Some DLC is only available by pre-ordering your game at one retailer as opposed to another. Buy that shooter at Best Buy? Then you can get a specific in-game weapon that people who purchased at GameStop won't ever have access to. Buy at Walmart? You can get an additional character download that other retailers won't provide.
But here's where things are starting to get dirty. First off, companies are releasing game discs with DLC data ON THE DISC. You can't have access to it, of course, until you pay for the content online. But the data is there on the disc you've already paid for. It's a sneaky and immoral way for companies to try to squeeze more money out of players. Second, downloaded content is becoming more and more important to the multiplayer aspect of games. Shooters, especially, have new maps coming out seemingly every week (exaggeration, but you get the point), and since so many players fork over the cash, those who haven't purchased DLC have more trouble finding games. Or, in the case of games like Call of Duty, you can get a game, but your lack of DLC restricts EVERY player to only the multiplayer maps you have. And, as you might imagine, that will often earn you an expletive laden verbal assault from other players who don't want to play the "same old maps" over and over.
So what does all of this have to do with the cloud?
Well, as DLC popularity has risen, so have the prices. A pack of 3-4 new multiplayer maps for Call of Duty will typically cost you $15. Fifteen bucks for a couple of maps. That's a quarter of the price of a brand new game! The makers of Street Fighter release a pack of four new characters and a couple of interface adjustments and calls it a whole new game, charging players another $30 to access it. Keep in mind that players already pay $50 a year for Xbox Live to begin with in addition to the cost of the console and the original game itself.
Worse yet, sadly to say, my former favorite developer - Square Enix - has finally delivered the ultimate slap in the face. Their latest release, Final Fantasy XIII-2, ends with a "To Be Continued" message. When questioned, director Motomu Toriyama stated that the ending is leaving room for DLC and the game's multiple "Paradox Endings." In other words, you shell out $60 for a game, play through to the end, and get told to pay more in order to finish it. It suggests what I've feared all along: Our living rooms, bedrooms, family rooms, and everywhere else are being turned into home arcades. Plunk down your money to play, get through a few levels, then be forced to pay more to continue. Sure, it's not that bad yet, but I could easily see the industry reaching that point within ten years.
And I have the same concerns regarding the "cloud."
Right now, we have - for the most part - control over our media. We can download music from iTunes and save it to our computers to be either burned to CD or shifted to an MP3 player. We can still get hard copies of games and movies and music in stores. And we can save our files on hard drives built into our computers or external backups. The data is ours to do with as we please (legally, of course), and we never have to pay for it again.
But the cloud has already appeared in some ways. Netflix, for example, is a cloud-based movie service. You have access to all kinds of TV shows and movies storied on Netflix's servers, and for a fee, you can access them. Likewise, there's a game service called OnLive that does the same thing for video games. For a monthly fee plus the price of the game, you get online access to any games they offer. All information is stored on their databases; you don't need a fancy computer or the latest game console. Just money. Every month. But if you don't pay every month, you don't have access to anything, no matter how much you've already paid.
See where this is going?
If the cloud becomes universally accepted by the technology world just as DLC was accepted by the gaming world, we could find ourselves paying monthly fees for everything and anything. Movies, music, games, and even data storage could all come with access fees because, after all, those companies need money to maintain the servers and data backups. As time goes on, physical media will become a thing of the past because it's easier to just click a button to download a purchase. Need storage space? Pay a subscription fee, click a button, pay a product fee, and you'll have terabytes at your disposal. Want the latest Batman movie? Pay a subscription fee, click a button, pay a product fee, and be watching within minutes. The ease of use will be the main marketing point, but inwardly, these corporate executives will be laughing all the way to the bank. EVERY month. But if you cancel your subscription, you lose access to everything you've already paid for.
Do you know why companies like Best Buy and Staples push services plans on technological purchases? Because services are considered pure profit. It is one of the few ways that you can take a customers money without handing them a physical product in return. Digital media will be viewed the same way. In fact, it already is. When iTunes tries to sell you a digital download of XYZ Band's latest album, they may as well be saying, "Would you like to purchase a warranty plan?" There's no CD, no case, no physical product of any kind changing hands.
Without a physical product in the customer's hands, the power is ALL in the developer's hands. Fees will be small to start, but as physical media fades away and the cloud becomes king, our society will be trapped in a system that gives all the financial control to businesses and other organizations that have one simple demand: Every dollar in our wallets. Next thing you know, access fees begin to rise. Then, "processing" fees will be instituted. Online purchase taxes. Pretty soon, purchasing a copy of a movie will entail a $9.99 per month subscription to a service, $20 purchase fee for the movie itself, $2.50 online purchase tax, standard sales tax, and whatever else the developers and distributors want to tack on. Worse, because we will have allowed ourselves to be forced into this system, there will be no way out.
Additionally, if this sort of technology extends beyond entertainment and into standard computer use as Microsoft and Apple and others are pushing for (the cloud is already a part of Apple's latest iOS), we'll soon find ourselves buying computers with minimal hard drive space because we'll be able to store as much data as we need on the cloud. Once that becomes standard, Microsoft could decide to charge monthly for access to the cloud. Suddenly, that book you're writing, that assignment you're working on, that presentation you need for work, they could all be held ransom each month by the providers of the cloud until you pay access fees. People will grumble just as they do about the prices of Microsoft Office. But people will pay just as they do to purchase Microsoft Office.
Is any of this going to happen for absolute certain? I have no idea. But if DLC has taught us anything, it's that we need to be very careful which powers we entrust to the powers that distribute digital data. Gamers have allowed themselves to take the bait, and now game developers are reeling in more dollars every day. If we don't want to see that happen to all aspects of media, society needs to reject the cloud as a whole.
Spread the word.