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Separate Content and Control

September 25, 2009

I’ve had this post brewing for quite a while. Here’s the thing; you’ve got to separate content from control. You’ve got to separate the what from the how.

Take DVDs for example. My DVD player provides a user interface; so why do the disc manufacturers insist on providing one as well? Compared to playing videos from an ipod, playing DVDs is a horrible experience. With an ipod, the only interface you have to use is the ipod interface. The ipod provides the menus, the controls. The ipod lets you choose between the “main feature” and the “making of”.

With DVDs, you’re continually fighting between the disc’s interface, and the player’s interface. Want to go to the menu? How about pressing the menu button? No, not that menu button; that’s the player’s menu… Urgh. The problem is that the movie-makers don’t want to just sell you what to watch, but they also want to tell you how to watch it. Sure, you can watch my movie, but you’ve got to watch these trailers first. Want to watch the movie again? Sure, but you’ve got to watch those trailers first… Argh!

They can’t even get the interface consistent. One of the big selling points of DVDs was the ability to switch between languages, soundtracks and subtitles. The original idea was that you’d be able to switch between languages, soundtracks and subtitles from the in-movie menu. That’s why you’ve got language and subtitle buttons on your remote. But how any dvds have you watched where you have to select your language right at the beginning, and then you’re stuck with that language for the rest of the movie? How is that an improvement?!

What’s worse is that, instead of realising their mistake, the industry is looking to compound it. Both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD are packed full of technologies designed to degrade your viewing experience, just so that they can try to maintain control over how you watch their content.

It won’t work. You can’t offer me something to watch and tell me how to watch it. The world doesn’t work like that any more. Seriously, it just doesn’t work like that. Seth Godin groks this. Seth understands that you can’t just bully people into buying your product, or watching what you want to watch. The internet has shrunk the gap between person and product; between consumer and consumed. We don’t need adverts to tell use what to buy and where to buy it. We don’t need TV channels to tell us when to watch our shows or in what order.

Content provision and content delivery have been completely and utterly separated. Even if you try to control the delivery of your content, someone will split them apart for you.

Yeah, and?…

Here’s the rub; once you’ve realised how much better things are when you separate the what from the how, you can’t help seeing over and over and over and over again products and situations where this hasn’t been done. How about websites that publish excerpts instead of full articles in their RSS? Using Google Reader for website feeds is like using your ipod for movies and tv shows; an utter joy. I don’t care how much effort you put into your favicon, I’ll always favour a clean, consistent interface for subscribing to all websites over your bespoke one, no matter how well-crafted it is.

You had more to say than this, right?

Yeah, I did. I’m sure that I wanted to tie this into programming somehow. Something about well-defined, public interfaces. I’m sure I had a few more examples, too. Oh well. I blame Friday.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2009 4:35 pm

    Totally agree. Is there anything we can do to persuade dvd producers to do the right thing?

  2. September 28, 2009 2:47 am

    Interesting post – I like your comparison between iPod video and DVDs. For sure we’ve all had that experience of DVD menus being seriously confusing.
    I think – for me personally – I’d like it the way you propose too. I’d like to just get am MP4 file when I buy a movie so I can just use VLC to watch it. But – I believe things have evolved the way they have for a reason, which is the money and the people. The studios jumped at the chance of including a bunch of other stuff on a bluray disc – it’s something else to lure the consumer into buying it rather than downloading it from the net. It’s something for the completionist. It’s something that will raise the sticker price (and hence their revenues). And the studios aren’t dumb – I’d bet a reasonable amount that they’ve done studies and proved that it is a factor.
    The thing is … ads do work. Maybe we – the consumers – don’t *need* them to tell us where to buy stuff, but when we see them, we generally do respond with spending power. With an incentive like that, it would be crazy for a company to do anything else.

  3. dan permalink*
    September 29, 2009 8:06 pm

    Hi Jon,

    “Is there anything we can do…”? Well, hypothetically, one might just use Handbrake to convert DVDs to M4Vs (I think only the Mac and Linux versions can do this without a pre-proc step; Windows users might want to read about DVD Decrypter), then you can use an ipod, docking station and component (or composite) cable to feed the movies to your TV. The two downsides with this are (a) the quality is worse than the original DVD, and (b) the menus aren’t displayed on the TV; you have to “cue up” the relevant video on the little ipod screen before settling down on the sofa (once playing, the remote will fast-forward/rewind/pause/play the movie for you). I believe that the Apple TV doesn’t suffer from either of these problems, although I haven’t splashed the necessary cash to find out.

    Oh, and the other downside to the handbrake/ipod/dock/cable combination is that subtitles, should you need them, are fairly unreadable on our little CRT TV. I don’t know if that’s an ipod issue, or a need-a-big-fat-flatscreen issue.

    Alas, I’m not sure that any of this will “…persuade dvd producers to do the right thing”. Not unless one of my 3 subscribers is the head of Sony Pictures Entertainment. I guess it’s possible…

  4. dan permalink*
    September 29, 2009 8:41 pm

    Hi Shahid,

    Don’t get me wrong. I like watching trailers. I just don’t like watching them every time I want to watch my favourite movie. Why not sell me two MP4 files – MyMovie.mp4 and MyMovie-Trailers.mp4? Then I can watch the trailers before, or after, or not at all. But chances are that I will watch them, and I’ll be even happier to do so if it’s at my own convenience.

    I don’t think I’m on my own. There are a small minority of discs that work like this; where there’s a “trailers” link on the main menu, and you can watch them if/whenever you want.

    Perhaps it’s the delivery mechanism that’s wrong; perhaps we shouldn’t bundle trailers with movies. What if the dvd producers knew what I watched, and knew what I liked, and then gave me my trailers some other way? Something like a weekly/fortnightly/monthly podcast of trailers I’d like to see. I know that there’s a lot of social networking hype, but it might work. This is an area where [the potential of] devices like the Apple TV and On-Demand services really put the traditional media to shame. Wouldn’t it be great if I always got to see trailers for movies that I actually wanted to watch? Wouldn’t it be great if I watched an awesome movie, and I could just “add star” and publish the fact that I enjoyed this movie, and maybe my friends will too? Any argument that “if the movie didn’t come with trailers, we’d never watch trailers” is clearly daft; we like watching movies, we want to find out about other movies, we just don’t want to do it right now, and we don’t want to watch trailers we’ve seen before!

    Tesco DVD Rental already try to do a bit of this “guessing what you’d like” stuff for me, although they don’t seem to do a particularly good job. I don’t think it can cope with the fact that we have one account for the both of us, and Mrs T’s preferences are much more – how can I put this? – Maid In Manhattan than mine are. Someone should explain to them what a bimodal distribution is (or maybe even trimodal; his, hers and ours).

    And the studios aren’t dumb – I’d bet a reasonable amount that they’ve done studies and proved that it is a factor.

    Hmm, I’m not sure that it’s that much of a marketing win. Disney have realised that people want to just watch their movie, without doing battle with a whole bunch of menus and forced-to-view trailers. Why else would they come up with FastPlay? “Just slide the disc in, and it starts to play…automatically!”

    Why else? Marketing weasels, that’s why else. “Don’t worry, busy parent, just sit your child in front of our movie and we’ll look after them for you”. Oh yeah, and we’ll subject them to a full-on marketing blast first. “Just slide the disc in, and it starts to play a whole bunch of trailers, and then the movie automatically!”. Bah.

    (Somewhat ironically, Disney’s FastPlay is actually SlowPlay – if you want to get to the start of the movie asap, it’s better to skip FastPlay, which will take you straight to the main menu.)

    Oh yeah, and has anyone else noticed how Disney movies always champion the single parent? Where was the dad in Toy Story (or Toy Story 2)? But that’s a whole other post…

  5. February 21, 2010 7:07 pm

  6. February 21, 2010 7:28 pm

    Good work Burns. Although of course it’s even worse than that; the pirate doesn’t even have to bother to go out and buy the movie, s/he can just download the bits and do away with the delay and constraint of having to buy it in a shop… not to mention all the ridiculous, redundant waste in manufacturing and transporting a plastic disc all the way from China to my DVD player just to end up in landfill.

    So, there you go. Saving the planet, one BitTorrent at a time.

  7. May 10, 2012 7:22 am

    Two new unskippable warnings, 10 seconds a pop.

    arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/05/dvds-and-blu-rays-will-now-carry-two-unskippable-government-warnings/

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