Entertainment has its head in the cloud

We’ve actually been using the Cloud for a lot longer than most people think. Whenever you got your first web-based email account – Hotmail, Yahoo, whatever – that’s when you first started putting some of your person data in the Cloud.

What’s the Cloud?

It’s a newly-popular term for the mass of personal data from millions of people now stored on remote servers across the world. Once upon a time, if you wanted to scroll through your old emails, you had to boot up the specific PC or Mac that had your main mail account on it. Now of course you login to Gmail from your phone.

The Cloud is more than that though. It goes beyond merely storing personal data all the way to having your entire information technology experience managed remotely. In other words, why download anything when you can just get it streamed off the net?

In the US, thanks to better broadband infrastructure and (soon to be rescinded) unlimited data plans, companies like Netflix and Hulu have grown up, charging a modest fee to stream movies and TV to players – first PCs, now dedicated boxes like the DLink Boxee Box.

For some cities in the US, the idea of going down to a shop to choose a DVD off a rack has become entirely alien. And let’s not forget iTunes, which pretty much single-handedly killed the CD-single market (why pay $10 for your track, three songs you don’t want and a chunk of plastic instead of $1.69?) and has rewritten the way music is distributed and sold.

The Cloud does almost anything you can think of, but of course we’re interested in its application to home entertainment. And with enough bandwidth, the Cloud can indeed replace all physical media. Imagine the shelf space you’ll reclaim!

After all, everything from music to 1080p 3D movies is digital these days, and if it’s digital it can be squirted down a fibre-optic cable, routed through your ISP and pushed into your home router.

Cloud-based entertainment doesn’t just cut out the local video store, though. It’s created whole new kinds of entertainment. YouTube is probably the best example – a vast, convoluted and eclectic mix of anything you can think of, from classic Sesame St clips to intriguing new short animated films. Yes, Google’s own analytics show that 70 percent of YouTube is almost never watched (30 percent of the content gets 99 percent of the views), but the point is you can go in with a search for Lego remote-controlled forklifts and come out at a hilarious mash-up of Gone with the Wind and the sound a pedestrian crossing makes when the light changes.

There are music services that will automatically generate playlists for you (even iTunes’ Genius feature relies on the Cloud to match tracks), millions of internet radio stations, on and on the list goes.

The big change for you, as a consumer though, is that the whole concept of ownership of entertainment changes. Once upon a time you bought a movie on a disc, and that was it. The disc became your chattel, and you were free to onsell it or give it away, however much the studios hated the second-hand market.

But in the Cloud, ownership remains with the person serving the media. The studio (or whichever streaming service it uses) merely allows you to watch the movie, not own it. The idea of DVD collections is on the way out.

Is this a bad thing? It’s hard to say. The requirement on a BigPond movie to start watching the movie within seven days and finish it once you’ve started within 48 hours might seem pretty draconian on the face of it, but when a movie is available on demand, why would you buy it a week before you were going to watch it? Just buy it on the night, and let it buffer while you microwave the popcorn.

Reliance on someone else’s Cloud servers to manage your entertainment can lead to sticky predicaments, though. Consider Sony’s PlayStation Network hacking trauma. The system was down for weeks. At time of writing it was still down – we hope it’s not broken as you read this!

For us here at Home Entertainment Buyers Guide, the emergence of Cloud services is another good argument for the National Broadband Network. Netflix and other services aren’t offered here at the moment to the same extent as in the US, largely because our average home broadband speeds can’t support them. That’s why we need gigabit connections to the home – so the kids can watch one 1080p 3D movie in the rumpus while the parents listen to music or catch up on ABC iView in the lounge.

In fact the Cloud has the strong potential to replace physical media almost entirely. And more than that, it could even replace broadcast TV. Don’t hold your breath on that one, but don’t be surprised either if one day you have to explain the whole concept of antennas, tuning, and needing to wait to watch what you want to your incredulous grandchildren.