Physical Versus Virtual Products: Do We Own Anything Anymore?


This is one of my favorite topics to talk about because I have seen products over the years from being very large and bulk to shrinking in size. As these physical products shrunk, they became not only more powerful, but also became more capable. Think about that old rotary phone compared with today’s cell phone. Some products have become so small that they no longer have a physical form. These products can no longer be held in your hands. Instead, they have simply just “disappeared”. Products now take on the form of being virtual. Think physical media like CDs and video game cartridges and how they are now virtual products. Is this good or bad? Think a little deeper than what you used to be able to hold in your hands. Do you still own these products whether or not they are physical or virtual in nature? That is the topic of this article as I share my thoughts about this.

The Difference Between Physical and Virtual Products

Physical products still exist and will continue to do so for a very long time. We still have a need for them because physical products are tools that we need to perform some work or task. Rather, we are taking these physical products and virtualizing them as much as possible. Physical products have a lot of overhead since they take up physical space. So we have issues with warehousing space and inventory. Not to mention other logistical nightmares like shipping and delivery delays and costs that make handling physical products difficult. These are a lot of issues that virtual products need not worry about. Virtual products benefit from not taking up any physical space and can be delivered and sent over to their destination instantly. However, virtual products suffer from copy and duplication, which is why DRM has become important in protecting virtual products from priacy. I discussed this in an article comparing PhotoPea to PhotoShop. I want to delve more into DRM and RIAA and relate them to the transformation of physical to virtual products. In some cases, I do miss being able to hold a product. Something tangible that you actually hold in your hands makes you feel like you actually own it. I mean some products like software are naturally virtual and only use hardware as a vessel to be served. This was the trend in computing where hardware shrunk and became more efficient in size but the software that was layered on top of it became more powerful.

The Difference Between Products and Services

Products are something physical that you actually hand in your hands. They have weight and they feel good because you can see it and feel it. Services are not physical but they are important also as there are too many out there that we cannot do ourselves. Some services that we commonly use are food, driving, cleaning, etc. The reason why we have to rely on services is because we only have so much time to do things. 24 hours a day is actually very short and what little time we have left after fulfilling our daily obligations is usually spent on hopefully our hobbies. So we use these services to take care of things that we cannot on our own. With products, it is the same. We have products to make our lives easier. However, we need to streamline our lives and make better use of our time. I talk about using your phone to run your whole life. I wanted to bring up products versus services just to prepare them for the rest of this article. I want to move onto why it is important to own products that are both physical and virtual.

The Importance of Product Ownership: Physical vs. Virtual

One thing that I have discussed earlier was how important it is for me to actually own my products. The idea of ownership is one of self-identity and accomplishment. What we own signifies who we are. From the clothes we wear, to the food we like to eat, to the car that we drive. All of these things uniquely identify us and I believe that is where all of the value of ownership comes from. We work very hard to have the life that we have. Life is short, it does not last forever. What little time we have here should be used to do two things. First, we should all be productive, contributing members of society. We all have some purpose and must give back in the way of either creating products or rendering services. The things that we should do is to engage in the pursuit of happiness. Outside work, we should take that time to learn about ourselves and do things that make us happy. That means finding people who share similar interests and can help you discover who you are and make you a better person. This is why ownership is so important because it gives us value and a reason to live in life. We tend to work harder when we have something that is worth waking up every day for.

The Issue with Subscription “Ownership”

There is something about having “semi-ownership”. I suppose that I will use that “word”. I mean subscriptions are a type of limited ownership. You will continue to own a product or service as long as you continue to make your termed payments on that product or service. The issue with this is that in some cases, you never really own the products. That is typically the case with subscription services. These usually require a monthly or yearly payment to gain access to some kind of information. These became very popular on the Internet. Some popular online subscription services are video streaming, online shopping and food delivery. I have not tried food delivery services but I do fancy some online video and shopping. The justification to these online subscription services is that you pay a “small” amount monthly to gain access to a wealth of information. A small amount really depending on the eye of the beholder. The prices tend to be reasonable because you have to keep paying every month to keep your subscription service active. 

Physical products also have their version of subscriptions, rentals and leases. Common forms are living arrangements and vehicles. These are physical products that typically require monthly payments to maintain. Some of these “subscriptions” like vehicles, you will own once all of the payments are made. Living arrangement on the other hand, stay rentals for the duration of you staying there. The tricky part with these kinds of subscriptions is that the cost and type of “subscription” determines whether you gain true ownership of your product or not. More often than not, the terms of a subscription make it very hard for you to own anything anymore. I like the idea of at least owning something after a period of time making continuous payments on-time. This makes you work towards a goal, finally owning something that is your’s and no one else. Ownership is great because it is the cornerstone of freedom. This is why individualism is so great and that having your own things is better than sharing something that has a lot of hands on it. You cannot have self-identity and self-empowerment when you are using things that everyone else is using also.

Physical Products Shrinking in Size and Going Virtual: Good or Bad?

The main reason why physical products are becoming smaller is because we live in a mobile society where we are always connected online. So we need to be able to move and access information at the same time. I talk about how we used to go to the library to do research and use the desktops there. Now we can do anything anywhere. So this creates the demand for making our device smaller. Hence, the trend from desktops, to laptops, to tablets, to phones. As the devices physically shrank, they became more powerful. These devices, however, are still physical. What happens when they go past the phone and become virtual? This is where it gets to be futuristic. That means the devices are within us and means that we start to become cyborgs. Think about our hands, palms, digits becoming a phone. That is a sign of the future where we just use our hands as phones. Virtual reality is the start of acquainting us with this inevitable future.

So is this good or bad? Who really knows. This is something that may or may not happen in the future. One day, pretty everything will be virtual. This is happening day-by-day and it will probably come some day. Rather, it is already here but we just have not realized it yet. The reason why is because we only see small pieces every day but do not stop and really think about it. I mean, each piece is part of a large puzzle being put together. When the puzzle is done, then we will see something that finally makes sense. Sense in the meaning that it will not be a surprise for those who put the pieces together and followed the trail to the end. Especially now since people want to go remote and virtual. This is just another piece of the puzzle that is coming together.

Do You Still Own Virtual Products (Software) Even if You Cannot Touch Them?

Let us think about this for a moment. If a product is virtual then we can only access it on a physical device. Is this product still virtual since we need something to access it? That is the thing about software because it still needs hardware to exist. Software cannot exist on its own because it needs hardware to live on. Much like a soul and a body, one needs the other. You can own virtual products as long as they are not connected to the World Wide Web. Always with the web and its DRM checks that make you do updates otherwise it might just deactivate your software. That is something that I would always want to check on. If you sever the online connection, does your virtual product still work? Your ownership of virtual products depends if there is something or someone out there constantly looking over your shoulder giving you oversight. That is why so many realize this and look toward lessening their reliance on the Internet because it has so many strings attached to it. A central theme that I have always stated on this website is that change will always happen. Whether change is bad depends on your ability to navigate through it.

Internet Connected Products: Why Do they Only Work When They Stay Connected?

This product is the perfect example of a product that you will never own because it was over-complicated with too many strings attached to it. You might have heard about this product, Juicero, a very fancy and restricted “juicer”. This product makes juice for you but it only works when it is connected to the Internet. This is the problem with connecting everything with the Internet. There is no reason why a simple blender needs to be online. Many devices do not require the Internet, yet somehow this product was made. Juicero failed miserably and is not a product that you own if it only works while connected. That is why I said that this product is too complicated and suffered from over-engineering. This is when you over-complicate a product because there is a possibility that it can be made better but just ends up being worse than a simpler existing product that just works.


The reason why I wanted to write about this is because it relates to how products are constantly shifting from physical to virtual and the challenges that come with realizing actual ownership. You can have ownership with both physical and virtual products. What might be a wall between you and ownership are perpetual subscription models and always connected products. Subscription models that never end only grant you access to information but never own it. Always connected products will DRM and update your products and might disable them if you refuse to keep them updated. So there is a lot that has happened to our products over the years. They have become smaller, more powerful and sometimes virtual. So we can be mobile and still use our products. That came with a cost, as I mentioned some products now have subscriptions attached and need the Internet all of the time. Just learn how to navigate and you will understand what is going on.

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