August 13th, 2013

A Purple Straw Hat

Predicting the Death of a Format

I recognize that formats never _really_ go away. People collect papyrus and vellum manuscripts. Poets and artists still make woodblock printed chapbooks. People still record on Edison wax cylinders.

Urban Outfitters has a record department (as in, vinyl):

There are still occasional new releases to VHS:


For my purposes, a format is dead when libraries do not accept that format as donations to a Friends of the Library (Book) Sale. Cassettes, vinyl, 8 track and VHS are dead. Books (other than textbooks and encyclopedia, reader's digest condensed books, magazines), CDs and DVDs are NOT dead.

So when do CDs die?

VCRs that used VHS were introduced in the mid 1970s: let's call it 1976. (I remember seeing contemporary Der Spiegel ads for them years later when doing unrelated research, but I also remember babysitting at a house that had an unusually ancient VCR from 1978, IIRC; I would have seen it in 1984 or thereabouts.) Libraries were refusing to accept VHS donations sometime after 2000, let's call it 30 years later.

Music cassettes predated VHS by about 10 years; let's call it 1966. I think libraries had largely switched over to CDs before 2000.

The LP (which we know as "vinyl" or a "record") was introduced in the late 1940s. It's a little trickier to identify its "death" for library donation purposes. I'm going to assert that happened around the same time as music cassettes, because the driving factor was ability to replace classical music collections with CDs.

The 8 track is even trickier to nail down, partly because libraries did not collect them extensively (and things are further complicated by their limited success as a format). But [edited to correct, thanks to Nate] 8 tracks were definitely being dumped at garage sales in the mid-1980s, so its run would have been from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s at the most optimistic.

So a format's lifetime (for my purposes) can be estimated at between 20 and 40 years. A rabidly successful format, like LPs, which enjoy international penetration from the very youngest customer to the oldest, from the most passing fad in music, to the most enduring classics, might make it 40 years for my purposes (remember: the metric is will a library take it to sell to raise money at a friends book sale). A less successful format, like Betamax, Laserdisc or 8 track, will be over and done in 20 years.

CDs are clearly in the Rabidly Successful category. Equally clearly, they're well into their long run, however long it may ultimately prove to be. When will libraries turn down CDs?

Assuming a start date of 1982 and a 40 year run, we could predict that CDs will be refused by friends sales at libraries in 2022. We could imagine several scenarios that might lead to this.

(1) Friends sales cease to exist because libraries disappear. I don't think that's going to happen.

(2) Friends sales become bake sales and DVD sales, auctions for experiences at local tourist areas or for highly desirable consumer items donated by local shops, etc. All this because far more people in the community are unloading CDs on the friends than they can then sell back to people in the community (because most people have switched to digital formats) or give to charities.

The second one is tricky, because of the distant market phenomenon. No one in the area may want our books or CDs, but maybe in some rural community a thousand (or ten thousand) miles away, they do want those books or CDs. As long as someone is willing to pay a nominal amount of money and then remove the goods, friends sales will likely accept the format. (In part because friends sales exist to serve as a middle-class guilt reduction tool. Increasingly they have competition in providing this service from those bins that you can dump clothes, shoes, books, etc. into.) The trick lies in predicting when everyone loses interest, even in the most distant markets, and that happens when it's cheaper and more practical for distant markets to switch to the new format and abandon the old one.

That is a tough call.

The other way to think about this is as a balancing act. There are still lots of people locally who are buying new CDs (I know, seems improbable. But it is still true.). I myself just pre-ordered Frog Trouble by Sandra Boynton, which is a book and CD set. I wish I hadn't, but there it is (and I am not going to un-order it, because I want it).

I had thought, as I started the iTunes Match project that I was incredibly late to the game: Match had been available for a couple of years. People had been using digital lockers for more years. I myself had started ripping my CDs _ten years earlier_. However, the expense of digital storage (and the hassle of managing it) and the expense of shipping bits longer distances has only recently come down to a point to make CDs stop looking like a high density format and start looking like a stupid waste of plastic. I am not late to the game. I'm just a second rank sheep the way I always am.

So based on all of that (and a little lick-finger-stick-in-wind), I'll predict the following. Sometimes around or after 2015, there will be a news story that becomes increasingly pervasive until we're all sick of it: OMG, major music release that you cannot get on CD! (And there will likely be a paragraph in some of them about how you can get it on vinyl. Take _that_ CD format!) There will be stories about people having to have their friend burn a copy for them from the digital release. We will all mostly not care.

And by 2022, libraries will start telling us that the friends sale isn't accepting music CDs anymore, but they will still accept audiobooks on CD.

DVD will be around for a while longer.

ETA: Here is a 2007 lifehacker article which illustrates why the switch to digital music did not happen earlier.

Everything is here: DRM issues (which I don't mention because they are basically gone), backup issues (again, dealt with by digital lockers/matching services), incompatibility issues (again, resolved). There are now digital booklets to replace liner notes and we're up to 256 for downloadable tracks, which isn't as good as CDs, but isn't that far off, either. Also, CDs still get dinged, and jewel cases are still Evil.

ETAYA: Another way to think about CDs is that they started dying around 2000, and the real problem is that there hasn't been an appropriate replacement yet. Once we get an appropriate replacement, The World Changes. Incrementalling our way to that replacement (removing DRM, providing a digital booklet, etc.) is unusually hard, because it is not only a format change, it's a p- to v- change.
A Purple Straw Hat

Of Formats and Devices to Access Them: Libraries and Friends Revisited

I _know_ libraries have, in the past, loaned out film projectors and VCRs, and currently loan out e-readers and laptops. So this is google-fu to try to better understand what has been/is available for loan (in the way of devices) and how libraries and friends are dealing with the desire to donate e-books and/or e-readers to libraries, either to become part of the collection or for sale to raise money for the Friends.

Nate over at The Digital Reader hypothesizes that my 20-40 year format lifespan will not apply to e-readers and e-formats. I think he is likely right.

You can donate money to buy a specific OverDrive title or a specific Kindle title, to become part of the circulation.

Friends accepting e-reader donations (also cell phones) (also VHS and audio tapes; they want everything in its packaging, not taking vinyl); not saying what they intend to do with them.

Donate a minimum of $30 to the Friends and pick a title available in OverDrive and it will be added to circulation.

Funny! The Friends are selling used book so the library can buy more ebooks.

New Canaan is apparently skipping the Friends and asking you to drop off your older e-reader so they can loan it out. (I think I donated an old kindle to the library at some point. Now that I think of it, I really should have offered them the old iPad. Oh well. There will be another one to donate in a few months, I feel sure.)

I don't see any indication that Friends are accepting donations of ereaders to _sell_ at booksales to raise money. They are accepting donations of ereaders to circulate at the library, which is slightly different.

ETA: At least some libraries will checkout DVD players:

I like that they don't want you returning it to the drop-box. ;-)

UCF (University of Central Florida) will check out all kinds of stuff, some only to use in the library (laptop, netbook), some for a week (DVD player, Flip video camera, digital camera, iPad).

UofI Urbana-Champaign has a more extensive live:
A Purple Straw Hat

Will e-book formats outlive the 20-40 year format lifetime for mass consumer products?

Nate weighs in:

Adding at the end:

"So in conclusion, I’m going to go against my source and predict an indefinite lifespan for current ebook formats (barring some unpredictable random occurrence)."

I've done some digging around, and all the media file formats in use on general purpose computers that I can think of offhand, from GIFs to PDFS, are all less than 40 years old -- mostly a _lot_ less. Now you could _claim_ that SGML is older, dating from 1960, but no one uses that language; they're all using one of SGML's bastard children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and in any event, you'd have to do some character translation to get from a 1960s era file to a 2013 era file (you might be trying to read EBCDIC on a magnetic reel, type of thing, when you're accustomed to ASCII on a flash drive).

I guess I'd put it this way. A new consumer product era -- for ebooks on ereaders -- started in the mid 2000s. The 20-40 year rule says that the format of those books will be largely out of use (all but a tiny fraction of new comparable items will be sold in a different, incompatible format, and you'll have trouble giving the old ones away, altho you should be able to still pick up a compatible device to consume the item in question, used and cheap if not free, the way I bought a portable 8 track player for $2 at a garage sale in 1986 or so) by 2040. I can't see _now_ what the replacement will be, any more than in 194x anyone was thinking about CDs.

But I kinda think there will still be a replacement. And at 71, I'm probably gonna have to figure out how to use the damn thing, which will only be harder as my eyes age.

ETA: I feel like my perspective is clear enough that I should not have to say this, but I will anyway. I do NOT have a problem with formats becoming obsolete. Is it irritating when I have to go dig copies of stories I have written off a decade old iMac and figure out how to strip off the Smart Quotes and deal with line break issues and blah blah bleeping blah so I can post them on my website? Yes. It is irritating. But it does not make me want to give up. It reminds me that as time marches along, I should be migrating the things I care about along with me, and disposing of that which has no future value to me.

And trusting that, should I need to go back and strip those SmartQuotes off, I will be able to figure out several ways to do it, one of which will strike me as least inconvenient, and I will just grind my molars and Get It Done.
A Purple Straw Hat

Hey, I know that guy, too!

Chapter 4 of _Big Data_: "Greg Linden was 24 years old in 1997 when he took time off from his PhD research in artificial intelligence at the University of Washington to work at a local internet startup selling books online."

Hey, I know that guy, too!

Who the fuck wrote this book? I don't know _those_ guys.

Altho I will note that they are incredibly repetitive, and their descriptions of "how things were" vs. how they are changing and what that implies are kinda thin, and maybe not what I would consider particularly, um, recognizable.

But they sure interviewed people I know when they wrote this book.