Do we own the media devices we buy?
My Playstation 3 recently made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The PS3 firmware upgrade released on April 1st removes the ability to install and use a non-Sony operating system. Up to now users had the option of installing and using an OS like Linux on their Playstation. The new firmware removes this option for ‘security reasons’. This is probably a reference to new anti-piracy measures. I was informed that I did not have to install this upgrade. I could continue to use the Playstation without access to online games and any other software requiring the upgrade. That is, every new game from now on. So I was gently persuaded to upgrade. Very few people use the ‘other OS’ option in any case. So you might say 'so what'? The issue is about ownership, or at least one’s sense of ownership.
People who have been buying CDs and DVDs for years may be surprised to hear that they don’t own any music or films but it's true. Buying discs simply gives you possession of a medium that physically enables the user rights you have paid for. User rights are enabled increasingly through networks rather than physical media. So, where we previously gained access to content through discs we can now do so through online download or streaming. This is what ‘cloud’ based media is about.
The other aspect of the ‘cloud’ is software. This not only includes work or entertainment software but also system software. A branded digital media device will offer a combination of hardware and software. There is no point in owning a Mac without OSX. There wouldn’t be much appeal to a htc phone without Android and so on. So we pay for a hardware-software combination. Yet while the hardware we purchase remains the same, the software may constantly change. Updated software can be ‘pushed’ on users disabling functions, barring certain types of content, gathering user information and so on.
There’s a question then about how we ‘own’ the media devices we purchase. New software can be pushed onto them changing characteristics that were perhaps the reason that we bought them in the first place. A person may purchase a device to allow the playback of non-DRM protected music, for example, only to have this option barred by a firmware update months later. In the ‘cloud’ media paradigm the characteristics and capabilities of ‘your’ media devices are very palpably in the hands of the people you thought you had bought them from. Most of us thought we were buying music and films when we were simply buying limited user rights. Over time there may also be a realisation that we are not purchasing but rather renting or leasing our games console, computers and phones.