Dohiyi Mir
    In Which NTodd Says His Peace

Sunday, January 25, 2004
Go to the new DM blog.

Coming To A Computer Near You

So I've been thinking a lot about electronic media and business models and social interaction the past couple weeks. In the class I was teaching in Dallas, we talked quite a bit about new networking technologies and how they are changing how telecoms do business, driven by the changing business needs of their customers. To kick off those discussions, I brought up a consumer example of technological change: my iPod.

We've only had iPods in the house for a few weeks, but Stef and I have already noticed interesting changes in how we approach music. First of all, the simple fact that I brought a lot of music on the road is a big indicator of an immediate, radical shift in my listening habits.

I sometimes would bring a few discs on the road with me in a CD wallet, but that was pretty cumbersome and didn't give me a lot of selection. I generally would forego bringing any music at all, especially on long trips when flying was involved--gigs I could drive to allowed me a bit more freedom, but even then I wouldn't bring too much.

In Dallas I realized how much music was an important part of my life, and even though I only had about 180 songs on my iPod, it really helped keep me sane. I cranked high energy tunes to get me going in the morning, and played nice soothing stuff at night when I was winding down. Just having some of my favorite pieces gave me an anchor during some tough weeks.

What's more, I discovered that I am indeed no longer beholden to the album format or even the physical distribution of content. Ever since I read Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital almost a decade ago, I've been anticipating the day when I was emancipated from atoms and could only care about bits.

I initially resisted buying an MP3 player for years--that was hard for an early adopter like me to do, but given my huge investment in CDs I wanted the technology to mature before I took the plunge (my 600MB worth of MP3s that "backed up" my ancient vinyl collection notwithstanding). The 40GB iPod is the perfect realiztion of Negroponte's vision in the music space for me, since the device can hold about 2/3 of my physical music collection, and really all the songs I actually like and listen to regularly.

The portability of my music collection is actually the least important impact. As I said, I'm no longer stuck in the album structure. One of my fave albums from the 80s is Siouxsie and the Banshees' Peep Show. I have always hated the track "Rawhead And Bloodybones", to the point that I programmed one of my first CD players to skip that song whenever I played the disc. Today I ripped the CD without the offending track, and someday I can see totally forgetting the tune even existed.

Some people lament the demise of the album, particularly in the LP format because of the cover art and associated creativity. True, in an electronic world you're not going to get things like Sgt. Pepper's mustaches, or big unfolding sheets of lyrics, but artists are now discovering the power of the electronic medium with interactive websites that allow them to go beyond the limitations of physical media. Every technology is going to have the effect of diminishing earlier mechanisms (witness how writing has reduced the import of oral traditions, or e-mail has all but eliminated the art of writing letters), but the old ways don't always completely disappear (buggy whips have, but fireplaces haven't).

The original CD was designed to be able to fit Beethoven's 9th symphony on a single disc--an example of how content from almost two centuries ago impacted our musical structures of today. But now that 650MB pales in comparison to the capacity of the average hard drive and is really a limit on artists. Besides, most albums today are nothing more than collections of singles, lacking unifying themes or epic stories to tell. If we were able to free ourselves from the bounds of the CD, maybe we'll get more works like Pink Floyd's The Wall or Planet P Project's Pink World.

What's also interesting is that I've been more inclined lately to try new music. Stef had ripped a few of her discs, which I put on my iPod before my trip. Ordinarily I wouldn't have bothered bringing some of her stuff with me, for fear that I wouldn't like it and would thus have wasted precious space in my luggage. But it was no big deal to add her tunes to my collection, and as it turns out I enjoyed the music! Similarly, I'll be more receptive when we driving to the camp or Maine or whatever if she wants me to check out something new she just got at or on iTunes.

Extending the whole idea of experiencing new music a bit, the lending culture I think will change quite as well. Stef is loaning a few discs, including some stuff by Nirvana Lounge, to a friend at the radio station. In the "old days", Stef might go for weeks without that music, but now she can loan the CDs to her friend while still enjoying the listening experience. I suspect this means it will be more likely that people will get exposed to new music since it can be even more easily given away.

I'm still probably going to be buying CDs for some time to come. I think it will depend wholly on how important the music is to me (e.g., I'll likely always buy a Peter Gabriel disc, but only download Liz Phair's latest). Regardless, the iPod and iTunes has already fundamentally altered how I look at music.

What I think is actually the coolest thing about iTunes is not even the service itself. Rather, it has charged out in front to show there's a different way to approach the distribution of music, which should open the doors for other business models to emerge. In fact just this week a student pointed out a McPaper article on one new idea.

If only the recording industry had embraced the technological and social change represented by MP3s, Napster, et al. Now the movie industry is learning the lesson and trying to figure out how to prevent similar problems. Of course, the work factor for the time being is greater to copy a DVD than a CD, with encryption (such as it is), capacity and bandwidth issues, and the like. Not only that, but the movie folks are actually trying to live up to the promises of their new media, bringing ever more value to DVD releases, while the CD never became cheaper or more feature rich (a couple "enhanced" discs from people like Sarah McLachlan aside).

Getting back to my class discussions for a moment, now imagine you have an MPLS-based network allowing any-to-any connectivity, combined with Fiber-to-the-Home services giving end-users 100Mbps (or even 1Gbps). What's that going to do to the movie industry?

Well, cinemas probably won't go away any time soon, even if you can get movies on the day of release into your home theater. We still are social creatures--malls haven't disappeared just because of e-commerce, for example. But the distribution models might change over time, and consumer expectations will shift as well, especially as younger generations grow up in a world with more possibilities than we experienced.

Hegelian dialectic (a 50 cent phrase I taught my class last week) rears its ugly head: thesis is followed by antithesis and then synthesis. Our thesis was CDs (atoms). The antithesis was MP3s (bits). And now we've got synthesis (I rip CDs to play on my iPod, and I can burn CDs with iTunes). I'm sure we'll see the same play-counterplay stuff in the movie industry, just as we saw in music, e-commerce (bricks and mortar vs. pure play vs. clicks and mortar) and even politics (go Howie!). It's sure going to be entertaining at the very least.

And now I'm going to plug my iPod into my stereo and listen to some Queen while I check out the sites in my blogroll...


[Update: correcting typos and bad grammar here and there...] 

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