Living Digitally

At the beginning of 2010 I decided to see if I could live the entire year without buying any form of physical media, meaning CDs, DVDs, computer games, books or comics.

I did leave myself some ‘get out clauses’, because while this was an experiment for me alone, I didn’t see the reason why other people should suffer – so I allowed myself to buy presents for other people.

During the year I also saw a number of new services and products that made my life a lot easier, along with two old, but sadly familiar, difficulties that made living my life digitally that much harder.



Music was incredibly easy – I have an iTunes account and I’m not afraid to use it, likewise for the small amount of music that isn’t available on iTunes it can normally be found on Amazon’s MP3 download service. It is incredibly easy to buy downloadable music – and thankfully most places now sell music DRM free. This is a real breath of fresh air. What made my life slightly more complicated was my boycott of any music by record companies involved in the BPI. This was as a result of the shameful lobbying that they did during the last government and the generally awful way that they behave.

As the music that I bought is DRM free there was no problem on getting it to play on any of the devices that I own.



Books were, on the whole, quite easy as well. I’m exceptionally happy with the Kindle, particularly with it’s ability to read books anywhere. All the Kindle software syncs across the hardware that you own. My hardware Kindle e-reader saw most of its use at home – when I was still working on the ambulances I didn’t want to carry around a £200 piece of kit that I couldn’t keep with me at all times. However my iPhone goes with me everywhere and using ‘Kindle for iPhone’ I can continue to read my books which then effortlessly sync with all my other Kindle capable devices.  Needless to say, the Amazon kindle store had a fair chunk of my money last year.

I did however have to ‘cheat’ once. When I changed my job I needed to get some books for my new nursing post, and sadly those were not available on any ebook store. So I ‘failed’ in the experiment and had to buy some physical books.

If a book wasn’t available on Amazon then I would turn to Inkmesh, a search engine for ebooks. Sadly I still find myself bound by the horrid frustration that is regionalisation. That is, a book will be available in the US, but not in the UK an unlike a physical book I then can’t get it on ‘import’. Heaven knows publishers aren’t interested in taking my money, are they?

As you may know I am a role-player, and there is a whole industry of role-play books. For these I was excellently served by Drivethrurpg.  There are many things that I like about Drivethrurpg, not just limited by their large library, but also because they don’t use any form of DRM, instead embedding your name into the PDFs that they sell. This means that it is incredibly easy for me to upload these files onto my iPad (using Goodreader) which is perfect for reading these art and colour heavy books. I’ve also never encountered and regionalisation issues.

Considering how much I use my iPad, it was perhaps telling that I didn’t really buy any books from the iBook store. Instead I mostly used the iBook to store public domain, creative commons or otherwise copyright free books and documents – the reasoning behind this was that I could then, much like the Kindle, sync the books between my iPad (which tends to stay at home) and my iPhone (which I carry pretty much everywhere).



I’m also a big reader of comics, although I did vow to cut down on the number of comics which I buy. Digitally I used Comixology, which is a slick piece of software that can run on the various iDevices as well as over the web. While the amount of content isn’t as large as even a small sized comic store this is somewhat made up with by it’s diversity. You can, for example, get plenty of free comics.

There is one small problem with Comixology though, that is you don’t really ‘own’ your comics – you cannot access or back up your purchases (and a lot of purchases are £1.19 or more). Once bought you can repeatedly download the comics that you have ‘licensed’, but you never really ‘own’ them  Once more I suspect that this is due to the requirement of publishers to have DRM embedding in all purchases.

This is somewhat amusing when coupled with the delay between publishing comics traditionally, and with publishing them digitally. Most of the comics that I read digitally are several years behind the physical product.

But why do I find this amusing?

It comes from the fact that the pirate comic torrent scene often has same day scans of pretty much every comic released and not only are these comics free but you get to keep them, back them up and even edit them if you so desire.  Of course, this is illegal and means that the people who work hard to create your comics don’t get financially rewarded – so I stick to the legal downloads because it is the morally right thing to do.

I did try Longbox, but in my experience the reader, on the Mac at least, tends to crash a lot – and that is when I manage to log in. In addition the library of comics is tiny and finally, there is no iPad client.

To be honest, the iPad is pretty much perfect for reading digital comics.



Again, iTunes came to the rescue – loads of films, loads of TV series and I suspect a wider range than most high street stores.

One caveat is that the films and TV series tend to not have very much in the way of ‘special features’, which are fairly standard on most DVD releases these days. I’ll admit that I am a sucker for a nice directors commentary, and while the format that Apple uses to encode their video is able to contain multiple audio tracks I am yet to see a film that utilises this for anything other than dubbing.

You also tend to get less of the other special features – small featurettes, looks behind the scenes and other fun little things that film producers use to fill up the DVD.  To be fair there some films that have ‘iTunes extras’ but they are few and far between and are often poorer extras than those present on the little silver disks, so I always feel that I am missing out.

I also suspect that I’m going to need a bigger hard drive – 2 TB just doesn’t seem to cut it.

I also need large disks to back up my film library because, unlike comixology, once you download a video that is it – you cannot go back and download it again.  Why can’t we have the best of both worlds? Download something to keep but, as long as the company is in business, be able to download it again if your backups all spontaneously fail.

Which is what Drivethrurpg does.


Computer games.

I own a Mac. To play PC games I boot into Windows as, sadly, the Mac gaming market is still tiny compared to the PC.

However during the early part of the year Steam came to the Mac.

Steam is a superb service which I use a lot for my PC gaming. It lets you buy and download games on the same day that they become available in retail shops. They are stored locally on your hard disk and can be backed up easily.  Once you have bought a game you can delete and re-download it whenever you like, and on multiple machines.

You do need to connect to the servers to initially ‘authorise’ your game, but after that you can play offline.

It is perhaps telling that the criticism of Steam is pretty small – after all, gamers are not known for being quiet when there is a problem, yet actual criticism of Steam is difficult to find.

I was hoping that with the wildly popular Steam in place the Mac gaming market might grow, which I think it is, but just very, very slowly. The problem is that a PC game needs to sell a lot of units before it becomes economically viable for the game to be translated to the Mac.

While we have boot camp there is little incentive for most companies to release dual format games – Blizzard being the exception with all of their games running natively on the Mac and PC, and all in one box.

I also game on the Xbox and Playstation 3 but have only downloaded one or two games from their respective services, my tiny experience of this has me thinking that the Xbox offering has more range, and is more user friendly.



During the year I wanted to reduce the number of magazines I read anyway. It became very easy to pass the newsagents without popping in to browse for the latest issues of a magazine. This is because I still have a stack of magazines from 2009 sitting under my coffee table waiting to be read.

I turned to the iPad for my magazine consumption of choice. There are a number of magazines available via the Pixelmags apps. These are essentially large PDFs of current and back issue magazines with a reading interface applied – they don’t do anything new with the platform, so there are no videos, little games, music or other media designed specifically for the iPad.

But then it’s not supposed to be. Pixelmags is a platform to reach an audience that doesn’t want a stack of old magazines cluttering up the house, and for publishers that don’t have a dedicated ereader department. For this it is a perfectly good solution.  My one moan would be that each magazine is it’s own app – I’d much rather have one app from which I can download different issues of different magazines.

Wired magazine was designed to be something special – it does use the capabilities of the iPad well with video, audio and animations.  Wired UK also released an app but this has only the December 2010 issue available, the last I heard was that they were thinking hard about how to proceed.

Ultimately my magazine reading has dropped immensely, after all most of what people would consider ‘magazine content’ is available online. And so my ‘digital magazine’ is my RSS reader, with feeds from news sites, blogs, Twitter and other online sources. It means that I can read what I want without having to scroll past fluff.

(Incidentally, this is just one of many reasons why I think The Daily will crash and burn).

Sadly there is a snake in the garden of iPad with Apples recent reinforcement of in-app purchases, and the difficulty of content producers to get subscription demographics the iPad is looking less attractive to content producers who maybe can’t afford to give Apple 30% of the cover price and can’t use subscriber demographics to sell advertising.

The final magazine that I read is ‘Nursing Standard‘, and they make their magazine available for subscribers online – they also provide free access to all their back issues. Now if only they could make the system compatible with the iPad I might read it more – sitting at my computer desk to read a magazine is less fun than it sounds.

And let’s face it, it doesn’t sound like a laugh a minute.



During the year I bought more media than normal, mostly due to being able to buy on impulse. However this mostly wasn’t due to adverts or other traditional marketing – instead it was from word of mouth, normally from my RSS / Twitter feeds. Someone would post ‘This book looks really good‘, I’d then click on the link and if it was available on a digital download I’d be very tempted to lay down some cold hard cash for it.

It wasn’t restricted to new books either, the long tail got a look in as well, someone mentioned ‘Childhood’s End’ in a blogpost and I decided I needed to read it…

…But then it wasn’t available in the UK. And regionalisation means that the US publishers didn’t think that my money was good enough for them. It is when this happens the temptation to go to a torrent site was more than a little strong.

With new releases where there wasn’t a digital edition I forgot any and all media attention. For example, my mum read about a book concerning a dog in her newspaper. ‘No problem’ I thought I’ll buy it for her on download (she has a hand me down Sony Reader), but the book isn’t available in the UK for download. A week later and I can’t even remember the name of the book, the publishers have missed out on a sale and Waterstones and Amazon don’t have their share of the profit.

Well done to the publishers for failing to leverage that prime media exposure in a national newspaper.

It’s a shame that Amazon don’t have alerts that let you know when a book is released in a downloadable (or paperback) format – it’d be nice to have a ‘Let me know when I can download this’ button.

One thing of note – over the year I was using downloads so much it took me until November to realise that my Mac’s DVD drive was being flakey – and I’ve not bothered to get it fixed because I have so little use for it now.

As well as the iPad being my main means of consumption of non-music media, Apple released the Apple TV, which brings real simplicity to the art and science of getting pictures from your PC, Mac, iPhone or iPad onto your 40″ plasma screen TV, well worth the money if you have plenty of digital media sitting in iTunes. I’m just waiting for Apple to update it so that you can see the UK catch-up services, I would like to assume that this is in the pipeline.

Just as I was writing this post I read about his site on Twitter – a manifesto from file sharers about how to end piracy. It’s one that, after this year, I can definitely get behind.

So, with one exception, I managed to make it through the year without buying physical media, and yet I probably bought more media than I would have otherwise due to the simplicity and immediacy that download services supply, only stopping when struck by the barrier of regional releases.  It isn’t perfect, there are still companies doing daft things in the name of DRM and regionalisation which still frustrate a lot of people, but I think that gradually, very gradually, they will start to see the benefits of freeing up their content digitally.

Remember when iTunes music had DRM, or that you couldn’t download music legally at all?

So things are improving.

11 thoughts on “Living Digitally”

  1. Was sad to read that RAoR is no more, although it's good that you're leaving the archives up for readers (both new & old) to go through.

    Hopefully your obvious flair for writing will continue to present itself, and you'll have more freedom to write on the topics that you want to write on, rather than what the reader is expecting of you.

    Thanks for the many MANY hours of entertainment, education and understanding on RAoR, and I look forward to many more here!

    Keep up the good work!


  2. I'm trying the same thing. I found myself unable to pass a charity shop without rooting through its books – which isn't the most productive way to spend a weekend.

    I can highly recommend Calibre for managing your books – especially if you're moving between several devices.

    Good luck with the experiment.

  3. I don't think I could ever give up my "hard copy" books. I've tried using a Kindle to read on, but I get a headache from the screen after a while. I have the same problem with a computer screen, especially in a darkened room.

    Also, I can't underline, highlight or scribble rude comments in the margins on a Kindle.

    I do read comix and magazines online (as well as blogs) and also my "daily newspaper".

  4. @Terence – I love and adore Calibre, despite it's less than superb UI and did indeed use it a heck of a lot during the past year.

    @Sewmouse – Well, Kindle does let you make notes and highlight things (and share them in various social networks). as for the screen, well, I can't comment on that but I've found the screen pretty easy to use because of the low contrast. That and being able to alter the font size means that I can read things without having to wear my glasses.

  5. Permit myself a light face palm as your librarian.

    The library – both work place and public – is the fantastic solution to avoid buying physical books.

    Often it will also be a decent source for ebooks (though not for the Kindle due to Amazon DRM requirements / failure to offer a model we can buy into).

    Do let me know if there are things we need to buy in support of your work!

  6. So, I have an old Sony e-reader – do I need a Kindle instead? Anyone tried both? Can you give me pros and cons? I do use Calibre 🙂 Does it work for Kindle – without changing line in the middle of a word? Please readers – adveice appreciated!

  7. Welcome back, Agree with the Kindle it's a fantastic device I love it. I won't go any where with out it. It great to escape whenever a spare 5 mins available. Such an easy device to use never had any problems even converted 2 out of 3 sisters into purchasing one,

  8. I love my Kindle! However, there are a few things I've acquired (legally, I might add) that it really doesn't like to display properly.

    Also, THANK YOU for the DriveThru RPG link! Do you know if the downloads work properly on the Kindle, or am I better off reading them on my netbook or desktop?

  9. @Alan Fricker

    Yes, I love libraries as well – but I need to have certain books with me when I forget how to spell olecranon, or when I can't remember if it's the talofibular or fibulatalo ligament.


    In my experience I prefer the Kindle, better range of books and a less annoying DRM. Calibre is excellent and does, in my opinion, a damn fine job of converting books.


    I think you are better off on netbook or desktop with files from Drivethrurpg – the pdfs are full colour documents and while you can read them on ereaders with pdf support, it's not ideal.

  10. I have contacted amazon via email to request that they add a feature to let customers know when books they have requested on Kindle have been made available. I would urge others on here to do the same. If enough of us pester them then maybe they will implement it.

    Keep up the good work Brian. I am really glad that you have not left the blog sphere for good. I have been a long time fan of your old blog and have both of your booksm but I do like you blogging about your other interests too.

    I know this new blog is for everything and anything but it would be nice to hear how you are getting on in your post. Especially with the swinging cuts that are hitting London (and the rest of the UK). Hope you are fully well after the lurgy.

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