Beyond the iPod

Because the iPod and iTunes has had such a fantastic impact on the music industry, I have to wonder if another industry shaking revolution like it is possible?  I’m reading The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, where he praises the U.S. for economic innovation, so I assume for us to stay ahead of the pack we’ll have to keep inventing new tech to market.  We’ve seen a lot of technological change in the last 50 years, but does that mean we’ll see constant growth in the next 50 years?

And will other emerging capitalistic markets start beating us at our own game?  Zakaria claims that America is not declining but the rest of the world is rising.  That means both new markets and new competitors.  But will anyone anywhere create another product like the MP3 player to change the marketing of music again?

I remember the days before video recorders – where few people saw the advent of the VHS revolution coming, but once it was underway it was very easy to accept a steady stream of new tech acronyms like CD, PC and DVD.   The MP3 was even more revolutionary and economically disturbing because music moved from physical objects to bits, bytes and electrons.  There was no need for any of these inventions other than convenience, which shoots down that old theory about necessity being the mother of invention.  We’re now into the HD and Blu-Ray upheavals.

I originally started collecting music by buying 45s and LPs.  Then I had to start over with CDs.  And for a short while a few years ago I had started moving to SACDs.  I’m hesitant to make another move, but I’ve finally committed to the MP3 format.  The question is, will I have buy my favorite songs all over again in another format in the future?

But back to my questions about iPods.  Assuming that the iPhone is really an iPod merged with two other revolutionary technologies, a cell phone and a computer, is there theoretically room for a new paradigm shifting music device?  If Steve Jobs sanctioned subscription music there would be a slight bump in the iPod road, but not much.  People would still be listening to music with white plastic buds in their ears.  Once you get rid of the physical media where is there room to invent?   Sure, we could talk science fiction and imagine ESP delivered music, but we have to stay somewhat realistic.

Maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but no matter how much I rack my brains I can’t imagine a new gadget for music.  I can imagine variations on the current iPod, lots of them in fact, but they’re all just improvements:  larger hard drive, larger flash memory, better sounding headphones, tiny built-in Hi-Fi speakers, SACD quality files, better filing systems, but nothing that offers drastic change.  I feel the same about personal computers and televisions.  Once you go beyond the physical medium of DVDs like DVRs, improvements are more of a matter of storage space and video quality.

Gadget junkies are going to need to look elsewhere for big society-changing technology.  Before long I think the geekiest of geeks will be buying home solar power generators.  If you can generate a significant portion of your own power, getting into a plug-in hybrid cars is the next gizmo that’s going to change society.  Now those two technologies are going to be huge game changers.  It will be like the iPod – you won’t need to buy that much gas to run your car – or at least not much compared to how things are now, and the secondary fuel may not even be gasoline.  See the trend – away from the physical.  Think 1950s movie science fiction where all the aliens did everything with glowing balls.

Mechanical evolution is moving towards fewer moving parts (hard drive to flash drive) and away from the physical (CD to MP3).   Electric cars have a lot fewer moving parts, and fewer parts in general.  Solar energy panels, LCD TVs, iPhones don’ have any moving parts.  If computers move to flash memory storage and became completely net oriented, they could even jettison the optical drive, and the only moving parts would be in the keyboard.

There’s a chance that Blu-Ray won’t even catch on because we’ve already gone beyond the physical with online movies and DVRs.  I would buy a Blu-Ray player now if it was $99.95 and get discs from Netflix, but if they don’t bring down the price soon they will have competing products that distribute HD video over the web, or cable companies will figure out a way to distribute HD programs on demand.  Cable companies are already teamed up with Rhapsody and other subscription music services to provide songs on demand.

My guess is the end is near for revolutionary gadgets for music, movies, television, audio books, e-books and other media that can be digitized.  What we will see is refinement in software.  Putting a cell phone, GPS, camera, computer into an iPod styled package isn’t revolutionary, just evolutionary.  What makes the new iPhone 3G so exciting is the software.  Now that the iPhone is opened up to developers it becomes very promising for endless speculation of what it could be, but it’s still the same old gadget.  That’s why Google saw the Android phone as such a big deal – open development – build it and they will come.

If a person could ask his iPod to play the ten most played songs on iPods in America during the last 24 hours, that would effect the music industry.  If she could ask for the top iPod songs from Russia, India or Dubai, that could have a new kind of impact too.  Or if you’re on a road trip and could ask your iPod to play the most popular songs of the towns you are passing, that would be another interesting variation.  The Zune song sharing feature is very cool and Apple and others should copy it.

All those features effect the distribution of music, making music more global and making it more social.  Sheet music was the technology for spreading music in the early days.  The first gadget to change the world of music was the phonograph.  Then came the radio, creating the mass audience.  To understand the impact of radio watch Ken Burn’s Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, which you can buy from Amazon or rent from Netflix, but if you want even more details, track down the out-of-print book by the same title written by Tom Lewis.   The phonograph went through many refinements including the CD, but ultimately, the ethereal MP3 player replaced it.

At first the MP3 file technology, combined with technology to play the file set music free.  Bad for the industry.  The goal of the music industry is to sell music as widely as possible.  Illegally free MP3 music has a wide distribution, but it’s not necessarily the best way to promote music.  Kid’s pretty much stole what they already liked.  Radio has always been the best medium to educate people about new music, and it’s always been free too, because it came with programming and promotion.

What will be the next big revolution in the music industry won’t be a gadget but software.  The networked computer part of the iPhone and iPod Touch has the ability to promote music in ways never possible before.  Whether you buy songs 99 cents at a time, or subscribe to them at $15 a month, getting you to commit ear time to a song is the dream of all musical artists.  People have complained about the stale rotation of Top 40 music for decades, but with a world of hundreds of countries and thousands of cultures, and all their musical history, there’s a lot of music to discover and play.

Let’s say you want to get into music history, wouldn’t it be fun to tell your iPod to start with 1950 and begin playing the Top 100 Hits of that year and move forward in time, and then use your click wheel to rate the songs.  Or buy a future edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” from the Teaching Company and have it play full pieces while it instructs you about the history of music?  Or buy a special edition of Richie Unterberger‘s history of folk rock and whenever you hear the narrative mention a song, it pauses to play the song.

Just remember, it’s not about the iPod stupid, it’s about music.  What we want is great music.  What we want is for as many composers, performers, producers and publishers to become wealthy or at least make a good living as possible.  We want music to stimulate the economy.  We want it to be a driving force in culture and art.  Every decade needs their own Beatles, Springsteen, Madonna and Prince.  Modern pop music is produced like candy and not art.  It needs more new waves like Rap and Hip-Hop before they got tired like rock, jazz and country.

I’m willing to call it quits with the development of MP3 music technology.  I don’t need any more convenience.  What I miss is the excitement I got from music back in the 1960s when I was growing up.  What I love is discovering a new song that I’ll play over and over again for two weeks.  It’s been a long time since I’ve found such a song.  Susie and I are watching The Beatles Anthology, an eight part DVD documentary and it’s riveting.  I don’t need or want a new generation of iPods, what I want is the new Beatles.

Jim

The Joys of Technology

Today, the title of my post is in all seriousness.  I’m having a very good technology day.  Other days, the title would be sarcastic.  For years now I haven’t quite figured out how to live with MP3 music.  I don’t like listening to music on my iPod – instead I want to play MP3 music on my living room stereo.  To that end I bought a Roku Soundbridge M1001 last year.  This nifty gadget plugs into my receiver and listens to my WiFi network and watches my computers for iTunes, Windows Media Connect, Rhapsody and other UPnP AV MediaServers where I store MP3 files.

What the Roku does is display a list of songs stored on my computers in other rooms that can be played on the connected stereo system.  It displays lists by artists, albums and songs via a small LCD readout and lets me select and play them with the aid of a palm-size remote.  The trouble is I have over a thousand CDs, and flipping through their titles one LCD line at a time is a pain.  I thought at the time I first set up the SoundBridge it needed a TV output which would let me select songs through a TV interface.  There are media servers that also fetch video and photos from your computer, as well as songs, which are controlled through your TV screen.  The SoundBridge is just for songs.  By the way, the newest Roku is for Netflix online films and does work with your TV.  It’s too bad they didn’t combine the functions for a single product.

This morning I jumped on the web because I just knew there had to be an answer to my desires, and I found an excellent solution, Visual Media Remote.  Installed on my laptop, which normally sits in the living room, this program lets me to control the SoundBridge.  I know this sounds weird.  My music is stored on a machine in my library/office.  The SoundBridge is in the living room.  The laptop could be in any room but it controls the SoundBridge.  If I had SoundBridges in other rooms, it would control them too.  This screen shot taken from the VisualMR site best illustrates why the software is so useful:

visualmr_pc_jukebox

This display shows a listing of artists on the left, their albums in the middle, and the songs from the highlighted album on the right. And I can filter too, by genres. This very quickly lets me drill down into my collection and find songs and add them to the player queue. I can sit in my La-Z-Boy with my laptop on my lap and just lean back and play songs about as conveniently as I could ever imagine, other than using telepathic mind control over my computer.  VisualMR has been around a long time, but I didn’t have a laptop for the task before.  VisualMR will also work with PDAs.

Searching through Google shows a lot of people use this same setup, but I don’t think it’s a massive crowd.  My guess is most people give up on stereo systems when they get an iPod, or they buy a cradle that attaches to their receiver that lets them use their iPods as CD players.  And I thought about reducing my music world down to one handheld device, like the iPod.  I could reduce my equipment footprint if my laptop had a large enough hard drive to store all my music.  Or I could just buy some high quality headphones and listen to the music directly from the iPod.  Hell, no one seems to like to listen to music together anymore, although I got my wife singing and dancing last night while we made dinner when I was showing off my SoundBridge setup.  But I had to play the songs she liked.

I’m happy with this present setup.  I wished iTunes and Windows Media Player used the same three-pane approach to selecting songs like VisualMR.  I can pack up my CDs and store them away.  Now that music is sold as DRM-free MP3 songs, this kind of equipment might become more popular, because it’s very easy to just shuffle these tunes from machine to machine and room to room.  Microsoft has sold Windows Media Center for years hoping the idea would catch on, but it hasn’t – not big time.  Linksys, Dlink and Netgear all have media servers that work with their wireless equipment.  The tech is there, I just don’t know if they are popular solutions.

Like I said, the iPod has changed everything and I think people have just adapted to it.  It makes me wonder if sales of CD players and receivers have fallen since the success of the iPod?  Well, duh, if people aren’t buying CDs, sales of CD players must be tanking.

All of this reminds me of the fat people in the movie Wall-E – they don’t notice the world around them because everything comes through their video screen, inches in front of their faces.  Now that iPods have added cell phones, movies and television shows to the music lineup, as well as photos and audio books, there’s all the more reason to stay plugged in to your iPod 24×7.  Who knew that electronic gadgets would bring so much fun and joy to people.

Jim