The New Musical Functionality: Portability and access


The other day I started this run of posts on the New Musical Functionality by arguing that the behaviour of an until-recently small group of digital music fans seemed to be now spreading into the mainstream. I also listed four areas that seemed to me to be where the most significant changes in consumption patterns were occurring – areas to which I believe that anyone building sites, services or hardware around music should be paying close attention. These four areas were (1) portability and access, (2) navigation, (3) self-presentation/social uses and (4) data use and privacy. Today I’m going to concentrate briefly on the trends towards portability and access.

This may seem like an obvious place to start, but I think it’s an important thing to get out in the open: the core difference between an iPod and a CD Walkman isn’t audio quality. That’s not to say that there isn’t a differences in the audio quality between the MP3/AAC file and CD ‘originals’ because – of course – there is and it is a significant one. However, in defiance of the normal path of technological achievements, the newer technology does not have the advantage in reproductive fidelity. In the future this may change (Apple’s lossless compression and increasingly cheap storage space are just two of the reasons why), but at the moment MP3s and AACs use lossy forms of compression and for this reason simply do not sound as good as their CD originals. It would probably be pushing it to say that this is the first significant change of popular audio format that actually made the sound quality worse (vinyl fans have been criticising the CD for that for years), but it does at least seem to be one of the first where claims of improved sound haven’t been a major selling point.

So why are these new formats and players starting to occupy the mainstream so effectively? What is it that means people want iPods so desperately even though they’re effectively purchasing a technology that will result in a decrease in audio quality? Again the answer is so obvious that it hardly bears repeating – particularly given that it’s on every single bloody advert that Apple produce. The reason that people are buying iPods is because they want 10,000 songs in their pockets. They want access to music wherever they are in the world. More still – they want access to all their music everywhere. Every last bit. Every last place.

As I’ve said, this sounds obvious but it is important. It’s important because once we understand the need that a product is filling, we can attempt to find other/better ways of filling it. The iPod’s current success has demonstrated that the need exists – and how – but I would argue that in the longer term it is by no means obvious that the need would be best served by small portable hard discs embedded in MP3 players.

It doesn’t take a lot of foresight to see the scope for development in this area. In the short-term, the trend seems fairly clear – storage capacity looks set to increase and/or devices look set to get smaller. This has been the trend of almost all computing technology over the last few decades (cf. Moore’s Law for the near-parallel phenomenon happening in processor speed). Given these fundamental developments, there aren’t an enormous numbers of directions that these devices can go.

The first two options for future product directions around this stuff are (1) larger capacities and (2) smaller form factors. We have already seen movements in both of these directions (iPod Mini / 60Gb iPod coming). However, there’s only so far that either of these trends can develop.

Increased capacity ceases to be interesting at the point where there is more capacity than data to fill it – hence the problem with saying that newer iPods can hold 10,000 songs. There are very few people in the world who would be capable, let alone interested, in sourcing that much music. After listening to my music exclusively through a computer for the last two or three years, I’ve still only got 8,000 MP3s. And I’m hardly representative. If we’re talking about significant subsequent increases in capacity then there are some pretty clear limits in place. 10,000 songs is about a month of solid listening. 100,000 songs would be getting on for a year. 1,000,000 songs a lifetime. Somewhere between a month and lifetime, the marginal utility of another song being on your iPod reaches zero (even assuming that physics lets you get to that size in the first place).

Of course when we talk about capacity in terms of songs we’re kind of missing the point. From this point on, advances in capacity are more likely to allow us to listen to higher quality audio than they are to increase the number of songs that people want to listen to. A tenfold increase in portable storage would mean that a future iPod could carry the same number of songs as a current iPod except in Apple Lossless formats that have all the sound quality of a CD. A parallel increase in bandwidth speeds could mean that the last few decades of work on compression could become fundamentally redundant – much like the techniques that meant programmers had to write whole applications to run with 8k of RAM are now pretty much irrelevant. So this is clearly a direction things are likely to move over the next few years. But even this has its limits. Once you’ve escalated disc size ten times there’s nowhere to go in terms of audio quality – or at least, nowhere that will make the slightest difference to most individual consumers. So again any subsequent growth in capacity will have to be sold in terms of an increased number of songs that could be held – and as such the gradual diminishing marginal utility problem comes in again. Increased capacity, therefore, has only so much of a shelf life – can only go so far before it collapses under its own weight.

The other potential obvious future direction – as I’ve said above – is to make the appliances themselves smaller. Here again there are limits to utility. There would seem to be a size under which a device ceases to be practical – that size being directly related to the size of interface elements, screens and buttons, which in turn relate directly to the size of fingers and thumbs and the limits of human vision. Now again, you can merge this in as a direction with the increased capacities and find a bottomed-out form factor and gradually increase the capacity on it – and no doubt this is the main approach that people like Apple will take over the next few years. At least that is until physics steps in or human interest (in having unlistenable amounts of music) begins to wane – both of which are probably a way off, but remain definite limits to future development in these directions.

Of course, there are certain conditions where an appliance may usefully shrink below the size of its interface, and that’s when it shares that interface with a number of other pieces of technology. This is the approach that the mobile phone manufacturers have taken – as the phones became almost unmanageably small, people’s attention moved instead to enhancing functionality and adding in cameras, PDAs, web-browsers, comms equipment, bluetooth and the like. This had the effect of keeping the form factors at manageable sizes while still allowing competition and product development to occur. There’s absolutely no doubt that this kind of hybridisation will be / is already a core part of the development of portable digital music players. Much of this hybridisation results in useful connections and possible new products emerging from music devices that are permanently network-enabled.

All of this previous stuff has been relatively uncontroversial – it’s no more than the immediate development along a couple of pre-existing axes of the products we have in our stores today. The incorporation of network-enabled devices has the capacity to change things a lot though. This is where alternative models for fulfilling a design for universal access and portability are likely to start emerging more strongly. We currently seem to be moving towards a world with greater and greater connectivity and one in which some kind of flat-rate, always-on broad-ish band internet access is likely to be integrated into pretty much all portable devices. This opens up other possibilities for having access to all of your music wherever you might be – and without actually carrying any of the files around with you. We could be looking towards a near future in which all of your media (and perhaps applications and information) can be held ‘in the sky’ and streamed/downloaded down to whatever appliance you like as and when required. Where this repository would live (with an ISP, with your home server, on your TV’s set top-box, on Apple’s iTunes Music store) is not immediately clear. But it’s conceivable that – given enough bandwidth and centralisation – massively redundant models like we have at the moment where everyone has their own copy of a music file could be replaced completely by centralised music-on-demand services. Personally, I’m not much convinced that particular extreme is likely – people still seem to like to own music and still think of it as an object rather than as a service – but that’s not particularly relevant. The important aspect is simply that the same user need can be met in different ways.

So will we move towards larger portable hard discs or towards connected repositories explorable through massive bandwidth? Probably the direction that we take here will depend on nothing more elegant and interesting than financial cost. If enormous storage options were to become enormously cheap and small, then carrying a significant hard disc is likely to remain the preference of individual music fans. On the other hand, if bandwidth became cheap, then we’ll probably find ourselves in a more service-driven and centralised streaming-based world. The model that’s most likely to dominate is likely to lie somewhere in between the two – in hybridised technologies that use hard disks as local copies of stashes of music held in more centralised locations – using the network to syncas and when appropriate (see note) as well as a mediator for various forms of engagement, navigation and data-mining around and in-between individual listeners. But more around that stuff in the next part of this sprawling rant around the New Musical Functionality: On trends in navigation…. (Coming Soon)

Note: Syncing becomes very important in a world with innumerable devices and limited connectivity. On a slight tangent – there are innumerable hybrid models where increases in portable data collide with the ability to access data at a distance. At the desktop level you can imagine computers running off the wired internet creating the impression of your ‘home’ computer wherever you sit, and on the portable level with large local storage being kept up-to-date perpetually via slower trickle-fed syncing protocols.