Looking Forward to 2012: The End of Media Ownership

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Ah, that final week between Christmas and New Year, when we look backward at all that happened and forward at the year to come. And what a year to come–one that could bring not only the so-called Mayan apocalypse, but also John Cusack racing across the globe to save humanity. What am I looking forward to? Someone to finally crack the “ownership of media” mentality, of course.

I know, you’re looking at me like I’m crazy, but think about it: If there’s one thing that 2011 has taught us, it’s that media is vaporware and that we don’t really need to “own” anything. Netflix (among others) lets us stream movies and television shows as we want, just as Spotify (or Pandora, or whoever) lets us do with music. Websites have, for some time now, proven that you really don’t need to buy newspapers, and Amazon and Apple are both working on a digital version of a lending library for long-form writing (or, as we used to call them, “books”). Why would anyone want to buy anything these days, when the right subscriptions put access to pretty much anything at your fingertips?

Okay, I’ll admit to some flaws in this plan. For one thing, not everyone is onboard with the idea that media is something you subscribe to as a “bundle,” or that you don’t individually “select” as you would an album, DVD or book (I fall into this camp myself, more than a little). But such thoughts feel like messages from the past, and standing against the rise of subscription rental companies like Spotify, Netflix et al., but also–more importantly–the audience mentality of paying once-a-month for all-you-can-eat, will have the impact of the early-days protests against digital music (which is to say little, if any).

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In many ways, this new world is the culmination of the digital-music-alarmist’s worst case scenario, with the shift in customer mindset from “owning a physical object that represents creative work” to “owning a digital file that represents creative work” evolving into “accessing a digital file, but feeling no reason to actually own it.” What this means to everyone involved in the creation of media content is still unclear. Consider the financial standpoint questions: Will rental royalties replace sales royalties in amount as well as actuality? Will alternative funding for content have to be found (crowdsourcing via Kickstarter and the like, perhaps)? And finding answers to all the unanswered questions surrounding the subject isn’t likely to be an easy or comfortable experience.

But we’re almost there in spite of these uncertainties, aren’t we? We have our online radio and our streaming television already. What I’m waiting for from 2012 is the one thing that brings all of that together, one media hub that fills your television, movie, music and textual needs for one low monthly price. Surely that can’t be far off? When it comes to just who is going to end up doing it, I’m looking towards a trio of familiar faces: Amazon, Apple and Google. All three of these companies have made moves in digital media that involve partnership with large content creators, and it’s those existing partnerships and relationships that make them best placed to launch endeavors–apps, platforms or just ideas–that are likely to catch on with consumers and creators alike.

For both groups, it comes down to ease-of-use and cost, and with cost, the tricky part is reaching an agreement between the two parties: Information wants to be free, goes the old credo, but media economy relies on people getting paid. Where that money comes from–and how much money’s to be had–will be the most immediate questions digital media has to answer in 2012. Once those questions are answered to everyone’s satisfaction, we’ll be one step closer to media saturation in a way we only dreamed of as little as a decade ago.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.