HMV and the perils of shipping atoms to ship bits

Long ago in his book Being Digital Nicholas Negroponte drew attention of the absurdity of “shipping atoms to ship bits” – for example using plastic discs as the medium for conveying bitstreams from recording studios to consumers’ audio systems. Now I know that hindsight is the only exact science, but given that music went digital with the advent of the Compact Disc in 1982, and the Internet (which in this context is essentially a global machine for getting bitstreams inexpensively from one place to another) was switched on in January 1983, from that moment onwards businesses that were based on shipping those atoms were destined for a rocky future.

That future took some time to materialise, of course. The Net wasn’t an immediate threat in 1983 because in the 1980s the only people who had access to the network were researchers in pretty exotic labs. But even there one could see harbingers of things to come; for example, in the 1980s some of those researchers were digitising music and sharing it across the network, just as they shared other types of file. But then the pace quickened: the advent of the Web in 1991 — and particularly of the first graphical browser in 1993 — began to turn the Internet into a mainstream phenomenon; MP3 compression technology crunched music files to a tenth of their original size, thereby making them much easier to transfer; Shawn Fanning wrote software (Napster) that made it easy for ordinary folks to share music files and — Bingo! — the die was cast. (For a fuller version of the story see From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.)

So today’s news that the High Street music store HMV is going into Administration has been a long time coming, but really it’s been on the cards for a long time. There are reports that the music/movie industry will try to rescue it. If true, then that merely confirms how poorly managed those industries are.