If I had to choose between digital content (software, media, or something else) distributed online and the same content on physical media, I would choose the physical media most of the time. Why? Let me try to explain...

If you buy something, you expect to own it. When you buy a sandwich, a piece of furniture, or a car, you expect to be able to do what you want with it. You can use it, give it away, sell it, or even destroy it. There is inherent value in controlling the destiny of the thing you've purchased, especially the key ability to re-sell it.

With content purchased online, you may have absolutely no control over your purchase.

In the best case scenario, the content is distributed to you totally unencumbered with no copy protection so that you can back it up and continue using it across computer upgrades, hard drive crashes, or even software publisher bankruptcy. The downside is that you still probably can't re-sell it.

In the worst case, the content may have restrictions imposed using some form of DRM. You may not be able to back it up, use it on another computer, and it could even become unusable if the distributor ceases to exist.

With content distributed on physical media, things are a lot clearer: you can usually do whatever you want with it until you give it away, sell it, or destroy it.

In my mind, the limitations on digitally distributed content often means it has a lot less value.

A few examples may help further illustrate my point:

  • Any movie I could buy and download online would be limited via DRM to being played on my computer (or an Apple TV I don't own). I wouldn't even be able to burn it to DVD, or transfer it to other devices.
  • Some music distributed online still has DRM.

Why would I pay about the same cost of physical media when it's usefulness (and it's value to me) it so limited?

Am I exaggerating? No. My opinions were formed through experience:

  • In moving from the US to Canada, my XBox Live account is now essentially void along with my purchases. I can't keep using my US account without without a US credit card, and Microsoft isn't able to change the country associated with the account nor transfer purchased content to my new account. Any discs I bought don't suffer from this limitation.
  • A bunch of the songs I've bought off iTunes are annoying to use because I have to work around limitations Apple imposed. Apple doesn't sell songs with DRM anymore, but the songs I already own are still being held hostage for 30 cents worth of ransom.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't buy content online. In fact, I've purchased a lot of digitally distributed content: games through Steam, EA download manager, and iTunes, and even a little bought off XBox Live, so that'd be hypocritical.

I think in the end, it's worthwhile to assign some value to the freedoms afforded by physical media or even DRM-free content: why should you pay $45 for a digital download of a game on Steam when you can get the DVD for the same price (or less if you can find it used)? Paying 99 cents for a track on iTunes that you can back up, burn to CD, or transcode for use on any media player? That may be more worth it.