The rise of the commercial digital distribution model has been as swift as a download of Hexic on a fiber-optic connection. Even Microsoft has been taken by surprise - Xbox Live Arcade, with its original 50MB size limit, was once envisioned as a place for simple Flash-style games. Now we have games like Watchmen: The End is Nigh, all 1.2GB of it and, Watchmen aside, the quality of some of 200-title strong lineup would put many a fully-fledged console to shame.
The signs are everywhere that nearly 15 years after Nintendo first launched the born-too-soon Satellaview service, we're at last reaching the tipping point for digital distribution. A WiiWare title was one of the top games of 2008 on that machine; every console from the DSi up includes a virtual store of its own for users to download bite-size games. The latest chapter of GTA, perhaps the most popular game in the world right now, comes only in the form of a digital download.
And now, following on from the news that there are over 6000 games on the iTunes App Store, comes rumors of the first tentative steps towards a console that would potentially have nothing but digital downloads.
There are enough rumors surrounding a coming, UMD-less revision of the PSP to make them sound believable - and certainly, who are we to discount what Dave Perry has to say? But whether the next PSP comes with this functionality or not is irrelevant - the day is coming when a console will no longer have any physical media, and for industry insiders it couldn't come soon enough.
No more hand-carrying gold masters to first party for submission; no more disc recalls when a massive bug slips through the QA process; no more having to split the profits with retail chains, and having to compete for limited shelf space; no more print costs for manuals and packaging.
And perhaps most importantly, an end to the industry's latest scapegoat, used games.
What's not to like? For those working in the industry, apart from the special "fondle factor" of holding your completed work in your two hands, nothing.
But hang on just a second. Aren't we forgetting someone here? Those, erm, whaddya-call-ems. You know, those guys, the... oh yeah... customers.
Digital distribution right now feels like an idea that is being pushed by the industry for the industry's purposes, a get-out clause for us to escape the aspects of the industry that irritate us, a way to corral the customers into buying through a model of our choosing. If so, we overestimate ourselves. Before we go too far down this road, we had better make sure we have the interests of the people who pay our wages in mind, and I'm far from convinced that anybody involved in this discussion actually does.
The iTunes Store is the figurehead of the digital distribution industry. While still not growing fast enough to make up for the falling sales of CDs, iTunes has succeeded where every other attempt to sell for money what you can get easily for free has failed. It succeeded for the same reason all new technologies succeed - it offered something the public wanted.
Most of iTunes' unsuccessful rival music sites sought to sign users into all-you-can-listen contracts with monthly fees, never actually selling you any product. iTunes, on the other hand, offered value for money, selling albums for $9.99, cheaper than in stores. What's more, it allowed the user to cherry-pick individual songs from an album - in effect destroying the very concept of the album which has been the cornerstone of the music industry for 50 years.
Even when it was equipped with DRM, iTunes still allowed you to burn music onto CD at your leisure, give that music to a friend, authorize your music on several (Apple approved) devices at once, and preview every song before you downloaded it. It had, and continues to have, its shortcomings - but its added value to the end user makes up for it.