Small Media

Products keep getting smaller. This is a trend that got underway around 1960 and will continue into the next century. Its effects will perhaps be most obvious in the area of media, or products that contain information. Smaller media will force changes in the distribution system, the complicated system by which products get from the factories to us.

When you look at the changes that have already happened in recorded music, it is easy to see what is coming. A record album in 1950 was an inch-thick binder full of 10-inch phonograph records. By 1970, it took just one or two LPs (12-inch phonograph records) to hold the same amount of music. In 1990, an album was one 12-centimeter (5-inch) CD. By 2010, it is a good bet that an album will be something still smaller. One suggestion is that the CD could be replaced with a smaller disk, perhaps 5 centimeters in diameter, manufactured using the same process. Or the new form of the album could be based on a new technology.

Other media are affected by the same forces of miniaturization. Last year, software publisher SAS decided to put its primary documentation on a CD-ROM. This CD is dramatically smaller than the 35,000 pages of books it replaces. Meanwhile, the World Wide Web means that large amounts of reference material that previously would be found in printed form now do not need to be stored in a physical medium at all. In my own office, where there used to be two file cabinets stuffed full of files, there is now only one — and it is half empty.

When the size of media changes, it affects the way media is distributed. Part of the justification for record stores was that phonograph records were too heavy and bulky to mail directly to the consumers. But this is a more difficult case to make with a CD that weighs 16 grams — retail stores take a $6 markup for an item that can be packaged and mailed for about $1 — and if we can make mini-CDs that weigh less than a sheet of paper, record stores could have a hard time competing with direct-mail operations, and most record stores will likely have to close.

If the thought of no record stores seems strange, look at what has happened in the computer software business. Ten years ago, there were thousands of computer software stores, but now most of them are gone. And in books and videos, most of the independent retailers went out of business in the 1990s, and many of the major chains as well.

There is no way to predict exactly what will happen, but it seems safe to say that media will be smaller in the future, and the way we buy media products will be different.

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