There has been a bit of a shift in our consumption of content over the past few years: today, more than ever, people are streaming content rather than downloading it. Whether via Netflix, Pandora, Spotify, Hulu, or the many other streaming services, consumers no longer have to rely on big data capacities on their phone or tablets, nor do they have to pay for all of the content they consume one-by-one. Thanks to near-ubiquitous high speed cellular data, as long as you have a reliable and fast connection, the new Coldplay album or the latest episode of Lost is just a stream away. Since streaming is often instant, you don’t have to wait for the content to download. And, since the aforementioned streaming content services are available on a wide range of devices, you can pause your TV show halfway through in your Netflix app on your Galaxy Nexus, then pick up your iPad and continue the viewing experience. And of course, at prices under $10 for unlimited content, streaming is economical.

So then, it would seem that we’re moving towards a future where most people will choose to stream their content rather than download it. That also means that we’re talking about a future where we pay a subscription fee for all-you-can-eat content offerings, instead of being charged a flat fee each time we rent or download a piece of content. That sounds good to me.

But wait! What if there is a third possibility? On episode 004 of The Pocketnow Weekly, I talked a bit about an alternate future where we neither stream nor download. It’s not possible today, but in future years, this could be a reality.

The Problem with Streaming

Bandwidth is limited, and for carriers, it’s expensive. For the most part, the days of unlimited data are gone, and most consumers have to live under a 1 or 2GB data transfer ceiling. Streaming an entire album from Spotify at the highest quality can use 150mb of data in just under two hours. Streaming a full HD movies from Netflix can quadruple that number.

Another problem with streaming is that not everyone has access to reliable fast data. And what happens when you get on the subway or on a plane? Streaming isn’t possible.

The Problem with Downloading

Downloading is expensive, especially if you’re a movie buff that watches many movies per month or an audiophile that constantly is listening to new music. Renting a movie from iTunes or Google Play can cost $5, and buying can cost upwards of $20.

Not only is downloading expensive, it’s slow! What if, on a whim, you want to download a movie before your flight? Unless you have a super-strong LTE connection, you’re going to need several hours to download that rented (or purchased) title.

Here’s the Solution (Hint: Today it’s not possible)

In the distant future, phones and tablets, powered by perhaps a new content delivery service tied to a particular phone platform, will come with every piece of content ever created (this sounds crazy, but hang with me for a sec). Your device will contain every song, every movie, every TV show, every book, and every magazine, ever made digital. Yes, this will require a massive amount of storage, perhaps something like 1EB (1 exabyte which is 1,000,000,000 gigabytes) or perhaps more. The data will be encrypted so that the user cannot access it without authorization (let’s pretend that this encryption will be truly unbreakable). To keep up to date, the device will synchronize only when over WiFi and plugged in. So for most people, the content gets updated nightly.

Here’s how you access the content:

Subscription: You pay a flat fee to be able to access any piece of content. The fee will be higher than the $10 typical for an unlimited streaming program, because it will combine all forms of content. So for $30-40 per month, your account can “unlock” any piece of content, but the caveat is that you can only have one “content-block” unlocked at a time, so to listen to music, you’ll have to stop reading the book. No downloading, no streaming; the content is just there.

Pay: You buy the content. When you buy a movie, for instance, the movie is “unlocked” from the data store. What’s more, it’s unlocked across all of your devices that utilize the same platform. No downloading, no streaming; the content is just there.

Under this new system, there is never any wait to download content, nor are there any data charges that rack up because of streaming. It’s an interesting combination of downloading and streaming, with the advantages of both. Of course, there are tremendous technical (and legal) limitations to making this happen. But if it could happen one day, it’d be neat!

So what do you think: is this a plausible idea?

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