Pitfalls of our cloudy future

I recently stumbled upon an article in Wired that talks about changes that music fans will see when more and more content moves to the cloud. It highlights a problem with cloud services that most people don’t realize we will be facing soon. Let me elaborate.

My own experience with the music, movie and cable industry has been bad throughout. About 6 years ago I bought a CD by my favorite artist at that time. I tried to play it in my car CD player and failed – the CD had copy protection and the CD player just wasn’t compatible with it. My friends who pirated the music could listen to it. After paying for it, I could not. I felt cheated and betrayed and I swore I will never again buy a CD. I kept that promise.

I was a cable TV subscriber for the past 15 years. After moving to Ireland I subscribed to UPC’s cable TV service. Their broadband was ok, but their TV service was overpriced for what it offered. I stuck with it until the day when they suddenly without notice withdrew ITV channel 1, 2 and 3 from their lineup. Apparently there was a dispute between UPC and a local TV station who had exclusive rights for Ireland for some of the same programming that ITV had. That’s all understandable, but not really my problem. I paid for and expected the service that I subscribed to in the first place and I wasn’t getting it. In fact I was paying more (they increased their prices twice) for less (they withdrew 6 channels in the last 3 months). I cancelled the TV service and kept UPC’s broadband.

Back in 2007 I bought an Apple TV while staying in Singapore on my way back from Australia. It was an impulse buy, just a tech souvenir that I wasn’t even sure what to do with. I soon realized that the only thing I could do with it was to play my music collection and look at my photos.  I could not buy movies or TV shows, because I lived in Slovenia and Apple didn’t have the right to sell movies or TV shows there. In 2008 I moved to Ireland and a short while later my Apple TV finally came to life, when Apple started offering movie subscriptions and purchases in Ireland. Initially I was happy. For less then the price of a movie ticket I could rent a movie and watch it in high definition on my LCD TV. Except that not every movie was like that. Some of them you could only buy and they cost a whopping €15 or more. A lot of money for something I would only watch once. I soon realized that I am again being ripped off. I sold the Apple TV on eBay and bought a Mac mini instead.

So here I am, in 2011. My music, TV show and movie collection resides on my Mac mini. Plex allows me to watch any of the content stored there both on my TV or on my Nexus S. I still have a small playlist synced to the phone, but I can also stream anything from my music collection to the smartphone when I am out and about.

Effectively I have my own little cloud service. I don’t pay anything for it, except for the cost of broadband and the cost of my mobile phone subscription. The thing that most network operators fear the most has already happened as far as I am concerned: I use them as dumb pipes. I don’t use any of their add-on services, music subscriptions or TV services. They exists solely to transport bits from my own cloud services to my devices.

And here is the kicker that the Wired article points out: to get your information into and out of the cloud, you need an Internet connection. Although your internet provider or mobile operator is a dumb pipe, they can make that pipe bigger or smaller and ask for more or less money for it. And they are already doing it. My UPC cable broadband has a 120GB limit and my Vodafone phone subscription has a 1GB montlhy data limit. For now I can live with those limitations, but for how long? UPC or Vodafone can suddenly decide that they are not squeezing enough money out of me and increase their prices or decrease their service levels. My only backup plan for such a scenario is to simply stop consuming any media. No TV, no movies, no music. The industry won’t be able to do anything about that.

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