Late last week, the company behind the Borders and Angus & Robertson book chains put them into administration, citing mounting losses in the physical retail space. Online sales of books (and other items) may have played a part, and to a lesser extent, because it’s still quite a nascent market, e-book sales.
Borders Australia was a keen seller of eBooks, promoting the Kobo platform as its own, as well as selling Sony’s e-readers in its stores. One of the first stories to emerge from the collapse of Borders in Australia came from Kobo representatives (it’s actually a Canadian company) stating that Australian Kobo e-book purchases would still be valid and could still be accessed even if the physical Borders stores went under. I’m not sure what’ll happen to the physical stores, but the spectre of online sales vanishing in a puff of data centre is something that I suspect we’ll all have to face in the not-too-distant future.
Considering that it’s now possible to buy books, movies, music and software as purely digital goods, spread across devices that may have their own storage or may rely on “phoning home” to a specific server to verify that you’ve got the rights to play them, it’s a problem that’s only going to grow in scope. As an example, Nokia made a lot of noise a couple of years ago with its “Comes With Music” service, which promised unlimited music downloads for specific phone models as long as a subscription was paid, but the take up of the offer (and Nokia smartphones in general) hasn’t been great. Nokia’s virtually axed the service outside of a handful of countries (Australia’s not one of them), so if you pick up a Comes With Music phone, you’ve got a lot less value than you might think, especially if you’ve not verified your playback rights, or if your PC dies on you.
With physical goods, you’ve always got something that you can open up to read, pop into a player to listen to or view, and, naturally enough, sell on to other people. Digital goods don’t have those benefits, although they’re easier to buy, sometimes cheaper and much simpler to store. Good backing up is obviously essential, but be wary if you’re buying goods that require some kind of DRM validation (Digital Rights Management); that could come back to bite you if the DRM service goes offline.