Why I Already Miss Physical Media

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Tablet computers are displayed at the e-Book Expo Tokyo, in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, July 7, 2011.

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Take the question of selection. Even sprawling retail stores have only so much space and understandably tend to focus on new items that lots of people might want to buy. Purveyors of digital content, on the other hand, can sell everything all the time — the popular, the unpopular, the new and the old. Offering 5 million of something is just as easy as offering 50,000 of it.

Except it isn't that way at all. The content is only available if licensing deals with copyright owners are in place, and the deals only get done if both the copyright owner and digital distributor think there's money in them and aren't busy with something that looks more lucrative. The Beatles may have finally arrived on iTunes, but a lot of music that deserves to be heard is still available only on CD. (Random example: the Ronettes' first album, recorded before they met Phil Spector.)

One of the saddest stories in Internet history is the tale (to date) of Google Books. Google has scanned millions of books and magazines, building the finest library the world has ever known. The project holds the promise of eliminating the very notion of books' going out of print. But even after the company managed to hammer out an agreement with publishers to put copyrighted works online and share the profits, the U.S. court system nixed it. Which is why most of the books at Google Books are available only in snippet form — just enough to let you see what you're missing. Used bookstores don't have this problem.

Even if every book were available as an e-book, it wouldn't eliminate the need for paper. Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and other e-readers are fabulous for texts that are indeed all text. Ink on paper, however, remains the best technology ever invented for the reproduction of artwork, especially when that artwork benefits from being displayed at a size that won't fit onto a typical portable screen. Like most other coffee-table books, Krazy Kat & the Art of George Herriman, a new Abrams book edited by my friend Craig Yoe, isn't available in electronic form. That's almost a relief, since electrons wouldn't do justice to the delicate line work and watercolors it contains.

One final strike against digital media: they're all doomed to eventual obsolescence in a way that their physical ancestors aren't. I own books that my grandparents bought before my parents were born. They still work great. But the Kindle books I've paid for — and I've paid for plenty — will only remain readable as long as Amazon distributes its e-readers and reader software and keeps its copy-protection servers running. We've already seen big companies like Google, Walmart and Yahoo shut down services and disable media that consumers thought they owned.

My treks to Borders and Tower may be history, but I'm still not ready to give up on the products they once sold, and I still like browsing through real physical goods in a real brick-and-mortar store. Here in the Bay Area, I can, thanks to venerable independent retailers such as Green Apple Books and Amoeba Music. They're way better than the big-box outfits ever were, which helps explain why they're still hanging in there. I plan to shop at stores like these until the final one has turned the lights off. And if it turns out that some of them outlive the likes of Spotify and Netflix, I'll be thrilled — and not entirely surprised.

McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every week on TIME.com.

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