I stopped by the store today because I needed more disk space. I walked out with 1.5 terabytes of disk space. Perhaps this is a sign the world is not the way it’s always been.
As I wandered around the aisles looking at other crap for sale, I found myself in the various sections that sell “software”, that is, stuff you shove into something else to make that something else do something. That includes computer programs, CDs, DVDs, console games, and HD-DVD/Blu-Ray. And I think it was then that it really hit me: this is all going away.
Packaging serves two purposes, maybe three. It provides protection for the product inside from rot or abuse or water or whatever. It can function as enticement for people walking by it or seeing it somewhere. And, I suppose, it could also make it easier to contain lots of that object for shipping/transport.
Let’s confine ourselves to considering books, record albums and computer software, because otherwise we’ll be here all day.
Take the packaging of a book. A stack of papers, printed with words and pictures on them, bound up using a bunch of different methods. The quality can range from amazingly crappy to thousands of dollars of rare materials. In this case, you’re not protecting the stuff inside: the words and pages are not that overly fragile, although it’s nice to have them all facing in the right direction. Instead the packaging (the cover and surrounding material) is often the first line of attraction for the casual passerby, telling them that the words and pictures inside should be looked at. Thought goes into the design of the cover to make people want to pick it up, otherwise it doesn’t matter what quality the words are inside, because nobody’s going to read it. Placement within a bookstore helps sell it, but even when there’s stacks of these books with just the binders sticking out at you, they’re still designed to summon you in some way. Books have been around for hundreds of years.
We don’t do record vinyl anymore, but when we did, they were large cardboard squares which contained records inside, and the front cover would show you a picture of the band inside or maybe a nearly naked girl who didn’t know the band at all, and the back would be a bunch of words telling you how fantastic the music was or indicating what songs were located inside and how long the songs were. (Naturally, there were variations to all this.) In the stores that carried records, you’d have huge bins of the cardboard squares and you’d flip through them or ask someone who spent a lot of time flipping through them to find something for you.
Computer software comes relatively late in all this, showing up in the mid 1970s in stores. In the case of the packaging for software, you would generally get a box or a bag. Actually, at first it tended to be a bag but later it was a box and then later it was a very large box. Inside would be a cassette tape or a floppy disk or a bunch of floppy disks and a big printed manual. When computer companies had a lot of money, everything would be in color, otherwise it would all be in black and white or single-color. The box changed shapes over the years, ranging from looking like a record sleeve to a piece of folded cardboard with the manual and floppy shrinkwrapped together. Recently, the computer box has gotten small again, containing a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM and a behest to buy the hint book, and with a small flap on front so you can open it up and see someone beating the crap out of someone else, just like you will when you buy the game.
Let’s just say that this summary of packaging is a tad brisk. But for all its briskness, you have a running theme: a thing you hold in your hand that then gives you access to something more ethereal (ideas, music, the right combination of set bits in your hardware so it does something involving Pac-Man).
You’ll notice I didn’t discuss the Internet or webpages in any of my examples. That’s because they utterly and totally destroy all of these situations as being the most efficient way to get the central item to you. If you want a book, you can get a 200k textfile and that sucker can be an attachment to an e-mail. In fact, it could be in a PDF format and maintain basically 100% of the formatting, fonts, photos and structure of the original intended pages, and that can be an e-mail attachment. Music is now such a ubiquitously available item that you kind of have to make an effort to avoid it while web browsing. If licensing issues annoy you with MP3, OGG format or FLAC format are hanging around to pick up the slack. An awful lot has changed in the past 10 years, when 56k modem access was the champagne elite for the home user and now people regularly get megabit speeds if they live even vaguely near a city center. People who make books, music and computer software have ranged in reaction from “See You On the Net” to “Hurble Burble la la la la la I hear nothing”. But at a point when nobody, no magazine, newspaper or television show, has to explain what a webpage is and often merely gives a domain name and leaves it at that, you know this Internet thing is pretty much ubiquitous.
People play the “Oh, the Big Bad Media is out to misunderstand us computer users” game, but in point of fact the big bad media uses computers as much as everyone else. We’re set.
The trend is obviously away from using boxes of cardboard and plastic to pile software up at local stores and carry them home. You’ll still occasionally do it, just like occasionally you buy a black and white TV or take a gas can down to the local station to fill it, but this won’t be the way you generally acquire this “stuff”, and at some point, some big name in software/music will not put a new album out in stores and that’ll be that for really big releases. The only big question is when, and how long before the general populace is trained not to get things the “box” way. Once that happens, the “box” way will be the “old” way and not thought of as how you get the stuff.
Nothing truly goes away, of course. Remember, you can still buy Model T parts, new. But trends are trends, and worth keeping up with.
Especially if, for example, you’re in the process of sinking a lot of money into a movie.
I suspect that GET LAMP will be able to go out in a package, but that ARCADE will not. I might be wrong, but that’s the horse sense I’m getting, observing how things will go. One goes out in a box, the other will likely be distributed online in some fashion.
But since the era of the box isn’t 100% over, I am dedicating a lot of effort into the box for GET LAMP.
There’s a contingency of people who like the aspect of boxes and the artwork/artifacts associated with them. Downloading a piece of software is nice, but they want the original manual and floppies and stuff that came in the box, and will pay dearly for that. Therefore, you can imagine how my friend Trixter felt when the Post Office destroyed a box he bought. It wasn’t that he could download the software program a thousand times over or even get a PDF of the manual; he wanted the material, the artifact. But Trixter, like myself, comes from the time that this was the way commercial products were acquired, so I think that’s a good part of it.
Record albums are a good example: a lot of folks really liked the artwork and design of the packaging of records, but as has been seen in the past 20 years, record labels have had absolutely no hesitation in putting together horrible reissues of old albums, and blowing a massive “IF YOU PIRATE THIS, YOUR BUTT WILL TURN PURPLE AND FALL OFF” warning sticker into the back of a CD, even if it obscures the original art. Even though that’s probably the only thing that defines the work from a .ZIP file, it’s treated like you really need a pile of boxes in your house to be a real consumer. It’s the quality of the box at that point, not the music itself.
The BBS Documentary had a nice box, the nicest I could do, because I knew that’s what people were partially paying for. GET LAMP’s box is going to put the BBS Documentary’s box to shame.
I will likely sell it in two forms, the “standard” box (which will still be nicer than the BBS Documentary box) and a “deluxe/special edition box”, which I am very simply going to have to take pre-orders for, it’ll be so nice. After that, when ARCADE is done somewhere in the 2009-2010 timeframe, I just don’t see these boxes being the way things will be done. So, why not have a really nice send-off?
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