Physical support: should we consider it extinct?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the physical medium was the main way of acquiring and storing certain types of products, such as software, music, games, movies and series, books… it was relatively easy to gauge a person’s interests with a simple glance at the shelves at home, and for those of us who are given to accumulating and collecting, over time the size of these collections could become in real trouble.

A little less than 20 years ago, these markets began a slow but inexorable migration towards digital, which experienced its first notable milestone with the proliferation of music stores and, especially, of iTunes Music Store, the seed of the Apple store ecosystem today. Hand in hand with the iPod, we can consider that the Apple music store was the first serious push from digital platforms to physical support, still the absolute king at that time.

Shortly after, the boom of e-readers would arrive and, with them, of digital book stores. Amazon, whose origins were precisely to be an online book store, although with the arrival of Kindle, and without neglecting the physical support (which is still in the store), Jeff Bezos’s company focused on what digital, creating publishing programs in your store, with your Kindle Unlimited subscription service, etc.

With movies and series everything has been a little different, because subscription services such as Netflix, HBO, Prime Video, etc., have managed to position themselves very well in the market, making many users more interested in having access to a wide catalog of content for a monthly fee than in acquiring, individually, those productions that are of interest to them. It is another format, but here the physical support has also declined substantially.

And what about the games? First stores like Steam, Epic Games, and GOG, along with company-specific and console-specific stores, and now subscription services like Xbox Game Pass and Stadia Pro. Another market where hardware is at the forefront drop, with surprising numbers, since there is a general opinion that gamers are quite given to collecting games on physical support.

And what numbers are those? Well, we can see them in a graph published by ArsTechnica, on the sales of console games in digital format (the green bars) and in physical format (the orange ones) for four complete years, from 2018 to 2021, both inclusive.

Hardware: a niche product?

Graphic: ArsTechnica

The chart speaks for itself, right? For years now, hardware has been the minority option when purchasing games and, albeit slowly, we can see that its position continues to decline year after year.

Will the hardware die?

This could be the first reading, of course. However, and unlike other markets that seem doomed, in this sense, to disappear in the medium term, in these cases it seems that the contraction of the market has a singularity: special editions and collecting.

From special editions of games with collector’s items (figurines, cards, artbook, etc.), to the minority but sustained new youth of vinyl, in the short and medium term it seems that the physical medium will prevail, but only in those cases in which it offers something that the digital medium does not offer. Whether it’s something tangible, like what I’ve mentioned in the games, or something more emotional, like the feeling of putting a vinyl on the turntable, moving the needle to it and hearing its lo-fi sound that takes us back in time.

The physical support does not aim to disappear, but to become a niche product, something that gives us a special feeling when it is in our hands. In the rest of the cases, yes, it seems that the war between bits and atoms has definitely been won by the former, although collecting and nostalgia have created a small but significant group that does what is in its power to retain the analog experience .

What is your case? Do you still buy in physical format whenever possible, or do you prefer the digital option?