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E-Business in the Enterprise – December 7, 2004

The end of digital downloads?

By Sean Mc Grath

Firstly, relax. This article is not about some new unpleasant twist in legislation to thwart digital downloads. Nor is it about nefarious machinations in the halls of power at the big software companies. No. This article is about bits on the wire. A lot of bits on the wire actually. Oh, and it's about time. Specifically the relationship between time and money. Your money.

Right now, right here, there are two downloads I want and I want them real bad. I want them real bad because I have just come across them while surfing. (In five minutes they will undoubtedly be pushed downwards on my wish list by two other downloads that I want just as badly. You know how it goes.)

Item of desire 1 : a Fedora Linux Distribution[1]

Item of desire 2 : 1000 hours of audio books in MP3 format[2]

Let us take this problem in three pieces - storage, transmission and money.

On the storage side, the Fedora distribution is 4 (yes 4!) CDs worth of great stuff. A few years ago I would have found it hard to contemplate how an operating system and associated goodies could run to over 3 gigabytes. Not only that, but Linux being Linux, this is 4 CDs packed with good stuff. There are no fillers of elevator music on there to bulk up the CDs for marketing effect. The audio books I have been looking at weight in at 16 gigs - about 20 (yes 20!) CDs.

Now I could most probably rustle up 20-30 gigs of free disk space around here to put all this stuff on but you know, it would be a real pain. I'd have to shuffle stuff around, then probably burn a few CDs or DVDs. Maybe create a backup to a second hard disk. All entirely possible but time consuming - even if you assume a nominal download time.

Thinking about download time brings us nicely on to the second topic of transmission. Even at typical broadband speeds, 16 gigs is a good chunk of download time. How much time depends on a lot of things but, at the broadband speeds available to me, it is not something I would simply invoke without having to think about data logistics, elapsed time, overnight runs, that sort of thing. Depending on your setup, it might be cheaper to do such a download at weekends, stagger it across multiple telco billing months and so on. I figure about 80 hours in my setup.

Speaking of telcos. Let's talk about money. Bandwidth costs money. The amount of money varies based on your circumstances but someone, somewhere along the line, is paying for your downloads.

So what is the total cost of a big download? It is a combination of local storage costs, transmission costs and, last but not least, your costs. Your costs in terms of time spent teeing up the big download, burning the DVDs or creating the backup disk etc. All this can add up to quite a chunk of change, even for a "free" download.

Now. Let us make the not unreasonable assumption that this trend to bigger and bigger distributions of great stuff continues apace. CDs are already looking very paltry and DVDs are looking more anaemic with every passing day. The humble floppy disk has receded into quaint antiquity like black/white TV and the telex machine.

Except for in one respect, the wheel hath come full circle. I remember installing Word from 8 floppy disks. CDs provided some respite from this storage media shuffle. More recently I remember installing operating systems from multiple CDs. DVD is currently providing some respite, but for how long? How many years will it be before a handful of DVDs are required for most downloads?

Not long, I suspect. We are approaching an interesting cross-over point. Hard disks are getting bigger in capacity, smaller in size and cheaper. They are doing this a lot faster than bandwidth is getting faster or cheaper. They are definitely getting cheaper than people - time is getting cheaper.

What will happen? I suspect 30-60GB USB/Firewire hard disks will be the new physical distribution method of choice after DVD. I also suspect that the costs mentioned above will be such that - even if the download is "free" - a significant number of consumers will adopt to have the hard disk shipped to them. Life is too short! Even if you have people working for you, they have more productive things to be doing.

Manufactured serendipity being what it is[3], I recently listened to a fascinating lecture by Jim Gray[4] of Microsoft about the economics of distributed computing. He has some interesting numbers in his presentation which I urge you to listen too.

Somewhere out there some smart people are plotting graphs of actual costs/soft costs of big downloads versus the costs of disks and disk shipping logistics. They are adding on a percentage that will be sold as "convenience" but booked as gross profit.

Their business will be to do big fat downloads, package them up and literally deliver them to your door on a hard disk.

It will be fun to sit back and watch this market evolve.

[1] http://fedora.redhat.com/download/
[2] http://www.audiobooksforfree.com/xMP3/MP3_offer.asp
[3] http://radio.weblogs.com/0100887/2002/03/04.html#a103
[4] http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail191.html