The Geo Giveth and the Geo Taketh Away.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of location based technology. There’s just so much information available to us out there that the use of filters has become a given and whilst the big players do a good job of providing the general filters based on topics the lack of location based filters is part of what inspired me to create Geon in the first place. This coincides with the explosion in ubiquitous GPS technology which was still out of the hands of your average consumer only a decade ago. Without these cheap and plentiful devices Geon simply couldn’t exist as the information streams would lack the data I require to provide accurate results (I try to avoid fudging data as much as I can, but for blogs and news there’s really no alternative right now). As I’ve said before I’m not the only one looking to capitalize on this, and I’ll be far from the last.

However despite the enormous benefits that such cheap and ubiquitous technology provides there is a flip side to this coin that I don’t often talk about: location based restrictions.

If you cast your mind back about 15 years you’ll find yourself in a world with a technology that was on the cusp of being released: the Digital Versatile(Video) Disk. Designed from the get go to be a replacement for the aging magnetic tape based format VHS it was something of a slow burning success as sales of the older format continued to outstrip it until 7 years later. Unbeknownst to most there was a sinister side to this new highly durable high definition format, the Region Code. At its heart the Region Code was a lock to prevent you from playing DVDs that you might have purchased elsewhere, giving the media houses precise control of what was released where and when with no exceptions.

At the time I was a salesman at the Australian chain electronics store Dick Smith Electronics. I can clearly remember the time when DVDs began to take off and for the most part it was all good. However as time went on we started to get people in with various DVDs brought by friends from overseas or otherwise that just wouldn’t play in their newly purchased player. Whilst for the most part we were able to circumvent these issues by up-selling them to region free players it didn’t stop the flood of complaints about why they couldn’t play something that they had legitimately purchased. At the time I didn’t care enough to find out the exact reasons but recently a resurgence in these region locking principles has started to send me over the edge.

Take for instance Hulu, a free video streaming service. As a service I think its a great idea since I could get the shows I want on demand and the content producers still get paid since they can slap ads onto the feed. Additionally there’s a whole swath of analytics you can run on such a service that just isn’t available on commercial TV (like how many people have actually watched the show, not just a rough guess). Plus every so often some great pieces of work will find their way onto Hulu such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. If you dare click that link you’ll notice that it doesn’t go directly to Hulu itself and that’s for a good reason, the first comment there demonstrates my point exactly.

Hulu unfortunately isn’t available to anyone who is outside of the USA and they’ve taken quite an aggressive stance with making sure that people tricking their way into the service are locked out. Whilst the underlying technology might have changed (Geolocation vs Region Code) the rationale for doing so is the same. Right now the content providers overseas want to control the distribution of their media in order to create a kind of artificial scarcity. What this does is inflate the value of said content when they go to license it to other countries since they won’t be able to source it from anywhere else.

From a business point of view I, unfortunately, agree with them. They are merely trying to extract the largest amount of revenue possible from their investments and creating these scarcities on products is just one way for them to increase their bottom line. Additionally I can understand where the business model comes from as in the distant past such a scarcity was created by the mere fact that it took a long time to get media from one place to another. However this doesn’t excuse the fact that such a business model is becoming unviable and introducing artificial restrictions on products will only support them for so long.

Such behaviour is typical of the media companies as they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming through every technological revolution in the past 100 years. The good news is that despite their ranting and raving the barriers that they have put up in futile attempts to preserve their ancient business models are starting to come down with players like Apple (iTunes Store) pioneering the way. We’re probably still about 10 years away before big media rethinks their business model for the age of the Internet but at least, for now, there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

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