Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

March 2003

Restrictive practices

Some things are just getting better. I am still in awe at the ease with which you can now get money when abroad, compared with only ten years ago when you still had to take loads of cash and traveller's cheques; it's great that most power supplies now work over a range of voltages so that you only have to take one with you when you travel (well, one per device of course; the next steps are: whittle down the number of different connectors, and agree to always put positive on the tip; I doubt we'll ever get to a single voltage though); European countries have done amazing work to standardise on a single mains voltage (apparently unbeknownst to most Europeans) and even mains plug standardisation seems to be gaining ground there. And in a surprisingly large number of places you can dial 112 to get the emergency services (as well as the locally more-well-know local number).

Then of course there are the different television standards, which have always been a bit of a pain, especially if a colleague from another television region turns up with a video when coming to give a talk. But because of the declining cost of electronics, even this difference has become less painful: most video players are now multi-system, and even a reasonably cheap digital camera I bought in another region can be plugged in to a television here, and it just works (don't ask me how though).

There are those that fear that standardisation, particularly in Europe, will destroy local cultures, but I've never personally perceived such things as the number of volts that emerge from my plugs as an essential part of my culture.

But one thing got worse. Just when it looked like we would be rid of the irritating differences for video, they deliberately added region codes to DVDs so that for instance a DVD bought in the USA would not play on European machines (and vice versa). It astonishes me that something like that is even allowed; it seems to me to be a restrictive practice that denies consumer choice, and just makes life difficult for the poor user.

Apparently they got away with it by claiming that region codes are there to protect new films that are released in different regions at different times. But I have never been convinced by that argument for several reasons, the main one being that if it were true then only new films would be region encoded, whereas in reality almost all films are.

Ironically when I went to buy a DVD player, on principle I asked for a region-free player, and expected to have to pay more for this extra feature, but in fact the only one the shop had was the cheapest one – a brand I had never heard of, but a fine player all the same; the mainstream DVD player manufacturers must really hate region encoding!

But the funny thing is that even if such things as region-free players didn't exist, DVD players are now really cheap (cheapest seen to date in my home town: €25 – about $25 – if you buy something else sufficiently expensive at the same time), so cheap you could just buy two and be done with it.

So what have the DVD designers gained? And couldn't they have drawn lessons from how CD player prices developed to have seen this coming, and avoided the aggravation for the poor user?

First published in ACM/Interactions, March 2003

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