If somebody closes the door, then open a window. Google did just that this week when they announced - just two days after Blockbuster video confirmed it was closing its remaining 253 stores - that their YouTube video streaming and rental service would finally be available in Canada. While that still puts Canada well behind the U.S. when it comes to digital media (e.g. no Hulu, no Adult Swim, no Zune music, no Joost, no Spotify, no this, no that), it's a step in the right direction. But if you'd still prefer to own and rent physical disk media in any way, shape or form, or get rid of physical media completely, it's a giant step off a cliff.
At one point, Whistler had four video stores and now we have none after Rogers closed its location at the Marketplace at the start of the summer. You can use Video on Demand, Pay Per View or sign up for Netflix to fill the gap, but with a very limited selection available at all of those sources it's like trying to bridge the Grand Canyon with a couple of two-by-fours.
So what happened? Obviously the digital revolution had something to do with it, as well as all the quasi-illegal downloading going on. I know people who have downloaded a torrent of movies they already own because it was fast and they didn't want to go upstairs and rummage around in their closet to get the physical disk, then come all the way back downstairs and put it into the machine, and sit through 15 minutes of previews and three copyright warnings because they can't find the remote control.
Another part of the puzzle is the fragmentation of the industry. These days you have to carry both Blu-Ray and DVD versions of every new release, then try to resell both formats when the rental numbers goes down. You'll probably do okay off a movie like Avatar but will eat your shirt trying to sell a few dozen copies of Grown-Ups . Then there's the whole video game thing - games sell and rent well, but every shop had to carry Xbox, Playstation and Nintendo versions of the same game for rent and purchase, plus offer Nintendo DS and PSP games for sale. Trying to resell your extra games down the road is tough when studios are releasing two new games per week.
On top of it all are late fees - nobody wants to pay for anything these days and video stores were is a position where they had to waive fees to keep their customers, then lose revenues by being unable to rent that movie to someone else.
The thing is, I don't want to go entirely digital. Not yet. I like renting games and browsing new releases on store shelves. But the world has moved on and it seems I have no choice but to move with it.
Meanwhile, I'm still paying $60 a month for cable I don't really think I need anymore. I could scale down to the $30 basic package, but to get the two channels I actually watch I'm required to tier up to the digital package and pay the premium. Plus, if I cut my cable I would be downloading a lot more and my carrier currently has usage based billing in effect. I could end up being penalized every month for going over the arbitrary limit without even knowing I was over.
Plus, as I mentioned before, Canada kind of sucks for digital content. I could easily get a media PC or something like the Roku Box, but you can't get half the content here that you can get in the U.S. Digital just doesn't cut it. At least not yet.
It really feels like we're living in in-between times. Companies that rent and sell media can't make enough money to stay in business, and digital has some massive drawbacks. Going forward, I really can't decide what's the best and most affordable way to go.
I see a real need for the return of independent movie and game rental stores, now that the big box operators have packed up and left town, but with the growth of digital it's a business model with a built-in expiry date.
Movies on YouTube will speed that expiry slightly, but we're not quite there yet.
Another cheap tablet alternative
If you were one of the many to get into the hunt too late to pick up an HP TouchPad tablet for $99 ($149 for 32GB) version in the company's fire sale, don't worry - Lenovo has announced a new seven-inch Android tablet for $199 while Viewsonic is also getting into the game with a seven-inch priced at $250. Also keep your eye out for a drop in price for the RIM Blackberry Playbook after the company said in June that they were steering away from plans to make a 10-inch tablet to focus on phones.