Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Shopping in the Digital World

Benny Landa, founder of Indigo, wrote back in 1993 that Everything That Can Be Digital, Will Be Digital. Mr. Landa was right. Today music, movies, software, books, and increasingly even magazines are available in a digital form. In fact, the physical versions of these goods are pretty much disappearing. Some faster than others but the trend is clear.

This trend is very exciting. The manufacturing and distribution of digital goods is significantly less expensive and more environmentally friendly. As a result, we have access to a far greater selection of content at usually lower prices and with a far greater degree of convenience.

However, the digital goods can become an issue during a Christmas shopping season. Most of the mentioned goods make for popular Christmas presents – books, DVDs, and CDs are among the most common items gifted. If you want to go digital, however, the gift giving becomes much more complicated.

There is the problem with devices. You want to give a digital movie?  Well, does the person have an Apple TV or a similar device that allows playing movie on a TV set? Nobody wants to watch their movies on a computer screen. If you want to gift an e-book, you better make sure the person has an e-book reader. Oh, which one? The Kindle or the Nook or an iPad? If you want to gift music, you must be confident that the person has an iPod or another MP3 player. And software? Does the person have a computer?  Is it a PC or a Mac? How about the latest OS?

Then, there is the problem with formats. For movies, there is QuickTime, AVI (Audio Video Interleave), Windows Media, MPEG (Moving Pictures Expert Group), or RealVideo. As for eBook, there are about 20 different e-book formats available today. If you think that at least music is all standardized on MP3, dream on! Some people, including yours truly, are much opposed to the strong MP3 compression which leads to fidelity loss. Instead, Apple Lossless and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) provide a hi-fi alternative to the two dozens of other compression-based formats such as MP3, AAC, WAV, and RAM.

And if this wasn't complicated enough, there is the question of membership and consumption preferences. I'd like to give as a Christmas present an audio book via Audible.com which I am personally addicted to. But if the person does not use Audible, or if he or she doesn't like listening to audio books, the gift will be a flop. Similarly, I thought of gifting a song book (sheet music) via MusicNotes for iPad. Besides the question whether or not the person uses an iPad, the gift would be pointless if she's not into MusicNotes.

In the old, physical world, the only concern was whether or not I could manage to find a gift that the receiver will like. Even if they didn't like it, re-gifting or returns were pretty easy. In the new, digital world, gift giving has become much more difficult. Well, I ended up still giving some paper books as presents this season, even though it is against my Paper-Free World convictions. Digital gifts have simply still too many inherent complications. What we need is more format and device standardization as well as ability to re-gift, try-before-buy and return digital content easily.

Merry Christmas!


  1. We agree about gifting sheet music. It's difficult to know what songs, arrangement, difficulty, etc. are right for someone. Then, whether or not they use Musicnotes is another question altogether. That's why we recommend gift cards for our site rather than sheet music unless you know specifically what someone is looking for.

  2. Sounds like a good time to create a personal digital signature that can be shared with others via a QBR code. It would provide you with the list of all of the gadgets that I currently own so that you could shop more easily for me :-)

  3. Good idea, Kim! We will definitely need more profiles and personalization in the Digital Babylonia.

  4. Sounds like a business opportunity to support gift swapping online: "I have a MP3 version of 'She Loves Me' and would like to swap for a WAV version..."

  5. If you want to go old school just buy the music, download a digital version, print it, then mail or give it to the person personally.

  6. There's also the issue of managing digital assets. It's much easier to "lose" an e-book or MP3 than it is a paperback or CD. I wonder how much money has gone down the drain from digital loss?

  7. A unrelated but amusing story I heard on the radio the other day pointed out another disadvantage of electronic books: other people on public transit can see what you're reading. This is important for the train passenger who wants everyone to know he is reading an "important" book. Their solution for people using a Kindle or similar device was to occasionally comment out loud on the book you're reading. For example, "Oh, Madame Bovary, you are so witty..."