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I paid for it, that makes it mine. Doesn’t it? No – and it never did

A new generation learns the hard way that everything is ephemeral

Something for the Weekend I have misplaced Britain. A wicked entity has made off with an entire group of islands and all its inhabitants.

"Try to remember where you last saw it," suggests Mme D helpfully. I think hard and it comes back to me: the last time I saw the ancient islands of my Celtic ancestry was a week ago, on Replay. I had found Britannia – the ludicrous unhistorical fantasy TV drama about the second Roman invasion in 43 AD – available for free on-demand via my streaming TV services.

I'd already seen the series when it first came out but thought it would be funny to watch it again dubbed badly (is there any other way?) into French. Halting playback halfway through Episode 2 in order to make a cup of tea, I forgot about it until a week later whereupon I thought I'd pick up from where I left off.

Except this time Britannia was nowhere to be seen. Had it sunk into the North Sea?

Actually, it had merely sailed away. It was no longer bobbing among the free titles in Replay, but had headed off onto the high seas of streaming profitability, taken a tack around pay-per-view, and was now moored in the marina of subscription-only content.

The system remembered the precise second at which I had paused Episode 2. Infuriatingly, it refused to play the remainder unless I subscribed to one of those 15 trillion little channels with forgettable brand names such as "Bevel" or "Wigeon" that incessantly start up and close down with a half-life shorter than that of Hydrogen-5.

Pay-per-view doesn't bother me. You pay, you watch, that's it – just like going to the cinema, except without the crying babies, incessant chatter or the risk of getting shanked after asking a group of children next to you to put down their smartphones for two fucking seconds.

Subscriptions, on the other hand, fool you into thinking you can just go back and play the content as often as you like, as long as you stay subscribed. But this isn't the case. For example, when I began watching Britannia Episode 2, it was included within my streaming TV subscription; a week later, it was not. And who's to say the subscription channel that's now hosting the series will still be operating next week?

Ah, I notice there is another option shown on-screen: "Purchase."

This is the worst of all options. "What's the problem," you ask? "If you buy the series, it's yours to watch forever."

Ha ha ha. You are kidding, right? If not, I suggest you try to claim on one of those "lifetime guarantees" that you see plastered across the packaging for a tech product that goes kaput a year later. You will soon discover that "lifetime" doesn't mean a human lifetime nor even the lifetime of whatever other kit you plug it into but "the lifetime of interest in which the manufacturer could give a fuck."

For guidance on measuring the last-mentioned period, I refer you back to Hydrogen-5, above.

Longtime PlayStation Store customers in Germany and Austria had a nasty shock earlier this month when they read that movies they had previously purchased risked being stolen away. Unless PlayStation Store comes back to confirm otherwise over the next few weeks, Studiocanal content is to be removed from customers' digital libraries from the end of August, even if those customers had paid for them outright, with no mention as yet of any refunds.

And so another generation learns that you never own software; even less so if it's uniquely supported by and stored on a streaming server owned by the company you bought it from.

The first time I was burned this way was when French digital comics platform AVE gave up the ghost 10 years ago. They gave me fair warning but I never quite got around to downloading all the comics I had purchased. That is, I downloaded a couple of my paid-for albums only to find they were just flat PDFs, not the progressive-reading and auto-zooming digital comics I had chosen to spend my money on. In the time it took me to work out that downloading the content in its interactive but proprietary AVE file format would render them incompatible with everything (I am a slow thinker), it was too late and the site became unreachable for good.

When Comixology announced it was finally allowing itself to be absorbed into the Kindle blob, I downloaded absolutely everything that same afternoon.

Adobe provoked a great deal of badwill around the same time when it repeatedly restructured the pricing for its early InDesign-centred app production platform known as Digital Publishing Suite. To be fair, the landscape of digital content provision was fast-changing at the time and I think Adobe was one of the first big names to own up that offering unlimited indefinite content storage in the cloud made no financial sense.

App users would not think twice about deleting content from their devices to clear up space. Later, they might download it again. It's one thing to host a website; quite another to host thousands of terabytes of hi-res multimedia and have customers download the same content again and again whenever they felt like it. The customer paid once but Adobe had to ensure all these bloody servers were working away all day and all night to serve up that content forevermore. That's never going to work out, even as a loss leader.

Nor is it just about content; nor just about software. Hardware is increasingly affected by the same issues, especially since so much of it these days relies on cloud-based support and updates.

As IT pros, this comes as no great surprise. Much of the job involves constant maintenance and regular updating. We know that nothing digital is persistent. Even looking after archives demands that you monitor the IT market to ensure that the formats and platforms you're currently using won't be obsolete and the systems required to read the archives irreplaceable by this time next year. You have to keep shifting the data to keep it accessible.

The consumer doesn't see it that way at all. They're still in a state of "I bought all these Betamax titles and now I'm stuffed" shock and refuse to accept that this is just the way of technology.

Except… younger buyers are finally waking up to all-too-brief useful lifetime of IT products and this could be a problem for parts of the consumer IT industry. Take smart video baby monitors, for example. They're a great idea, for sure, but what are you going to do with all that kit once little Algernon is in training pants? It's a lot of money for a convenience that'll last barely a year, and, you know, there's a recession looming.

Hubble Connected – a manufacturer of such video baby monitor solutions – would like to persuade you that the device can serve a longer life beyond the nursery, as home security cameras for example.

Well, perhaps, but only if Hubble itself keeps supporting the kit. Plenty of paranoid householders got burnt by Hive's recent announcement that it was going to ditch its own home security products, effectively bricking Hive hardware progressively from September 2023 to August 2025. It's bad enough that nobody owns software they paid for; apparently you have not much more ‘ownership' of what happens to that hardware you bought either.

And what about Sonos dropping support for older product lines? These are not companies going bust – we are all subject to this happening, of course. Rather, these are companies that have changed their minds, or got bored, or had a difficult meeting with a new CFO who wants to know whose stupid idea it was to accept the ever-diminishing returns of supporting hardware that customers naively think they own as a result of having paid for them… once.

Just once! Think of it!

There's no room in the subscription model for one-off purchases. Whatever you think you have bought, you haven't, not really. Software or hardware alike, none of it is yours and it never was.

But that's only natural. I mean it literally: subscription is the natural order of things. Existentially speaking, we are all, each and every one of us, subscription-based.

Just keep paying the subs and let's hope support isn't withdrawn any time soon, eh?

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He subsequently found a three-series complete box set of Britannia on DVD (good lord) in an HMV (oh good lord again) in Cardiff. More SFTW here. Other stuff at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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