Radio & Music Technology

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.

18 replies on “The New Musical Functionality: Portability and access”

Music, music everywhere
Tom Coates has posted the first two articles in a series he’s using to lay out his thoughts on what he calls ‘The New Musical Functionality’ – the effect on our music-listening habits of massively more capable portable players, wireless connectivity an…

Great post–I am enjoying this series and looking forward to the rest.
You might find my series that ends with a post on “The future of music playback” ( ) a largely speculative, but generally corroborating, compliment to your series.
In general, I think it is important to recognize that there is a “new musical functionality” that is having an impact on both the personal and social / community experience of music, and likewise is beckoning new possibilities for the who, what, how, why, when, and where music is created.

You may have also seen’s excellent write-up on Life Caching, the practice of recording as much of one’s life as possible (mostly talking about pics and video, although the audio extensions are obvious) and the ability to carry your entire life with you at all times. Imagine if every photo album you ever made, and selections from your friends’ albums, was stored in a keychain. Babies would get their family history on a miniscule hard drive as a christening gift… or, in the more here and now, there are possibilities for using the iPod in the traditional mix tape fashion, either by setting a playlist or loading music on someone’s iPod — and still presumably to make friends and get laid. w00t!

But, but, but, there’s very little value in having higher quality sound on an iPod than that provided by an average MP3/AAC file. For home listening, sure, but not for cars or iPods. We haven’t got an affordable device yet that really takes ‘digital’ (for want of a better word) music into the living room yet, but it’s not that far away. That’s when audio quality will become an issue.

I’ll bite (in a devil’s advocate kinda way).
I’m classic early adopter. I had minidisc way before most people (before most people realised it was dead as well). Why did I get minidisc (portable, home and car!)?
The sound quality ‘issue’ isn’t one really, the large majority of people won’t readily notice or care about minor drops in quality. Portability is the key I think (at the moment anyway).
So the reason I went to minidisc away from CD was simple. Have you tried a strenuous walk with a CD Walkman? Skip skip skippity skip. Awful. Hard drive based players don’t suffer from this.
I DO agree with the number of songs issue though, I’m at 7575 tracks (according to iTunes) and have a 10GB iPod. I rarely have more than 3 or 4 GB on it at any one time – too much choice ya see.
Anyhoo. Loving this ‘series’ can’t wait for the next one.

Huh? I don’t get it. Why are you obssessing only about sound/music? The iPod looks to be soon superceded by complete portable media players* – which as well as playing music, will store and display digital photos, and video files and whatever – these things certainly gooble up the gigabytes.
(*and will probably be able to plug into TV sets and monitors as a matter of course)

As I say through this piece and the one before, I’m talking about music because it’s the first major one of these media that has stuff like this happening to it. Most of the things I talk about here are applicable to a certain extent to other media. Having said that, while access and portability will clearly be important for video and stuff, the contexts of their use will be very different. You might want to watch a TV show when you’re at work and bored, or at a friend’s house or in the office. And yes – people will watch them on buses and trains and stuff as well, but much less often than with music, which can be backgrounded while you’re working / walking / thinking / travelling, and which doesn’t have as a major part of its apparatus the necessity of a big screen (although of course we can probbaly expect some form of portable TV in glasses or in something similar at some point in the future…

Tom, congrats on a very well thought out post here. However, I have to agree with Gordon to a certain extent. The central idea is portability. As a user I really don’t give a flying whatever how this is achieved, as long as I can access the music, sorry ‘media’, I have paid for WHEN I WANT, HOW I WANT!!!
Which is why I applaud Real Networks’ Harmony. With them I can put the music I have bought on the hardware I have paid for. Fcuk the DRM systems and the politics.
Has anyone else gotten riled by the way Vodafone have b*stardised the Nokia 6230 to only accept DRM’d MP3s as ringtones? WTF? I paid for my Dire Straits CD almost 20 years ago. Who are Vodafone to tell me now how I should use that music?
But to return, I will pay once to play my music anywhere. Twice to make sure I have it on CD. More than that to have a ‘licence’ to play it at the RIAA/BPI’s discretion? GFY!

As the name of the post might indicate, I clearly believe that portability is a more important thing than sound quality – the question is just what direction people can take portability and for some versions of it (hard disk size) it’s reaching the edges of it…

Towards the end of your post you come across an age-old argument between the benefits of having a centralised, networked ‘thin-client’ structure, or decentralised individual ‘fat-client’ structure.
You can see how the pendulum between these two extremes has swung by looking at e-mail. When the internet first took off in the UK, with ISPs like AOL, Compuserver and then Freeserve leading the way, most people used e-mail clients (largely Outlook Express or Eudora) to receive their ISP-allocated e-mail address. Then Hotmail and the like took off and almost everyone started using web-based e-mail. Why?
I think there are two issues. Firstly, portability. Having an e-mail client on your home computer and using POP3 means you can’t easily check your e-mail when at work or on holiday. Web-based e-mail can be accessed at any internet terminal. On the flip side though, if you’ve got a portable device capable of reading and storing e-mail (a notebook, PDA or even a mobile), then that can be even more portable – allowing offline reading anywhere you take your device.
There’s a second, important, issue at play though, and that’s ownership. Switching ISPs is even more of a drag if it means losing your regular e-mail address. On the other hand, can you trust your webmail provider to continue to provide a good service, at price you’re prepared to pay? (something users of discovered to their cost)
There may often be a trade-off between portability and ownership, and so users may have to decide which is more important. As always, there are compromises. In terms of e-mail portability, there is IMAP, with its use of server-based hosting and local synching. In terms of e-mail ownership, you can buy your own domain name for ultimate ownership, pay Hotmail (or whoever) to get some ownership (ie not get deleted when you go on a 30-day holiday) or simply trust Gmail (or whoever) to play nice with your e-mail address.
The question of ownership is even more important when it comes to music, as people are a lot more protective of their music collections (be it on vinyl, CD or hard disk) than their e-mail address (there’s more of an emotional attachment). Will we trust service providers to look after all our music and give us access to it whenever? That would take some doing. The actions of the big record labels have done a lot to damage consumer trust. For the time being, people will want to be certain that they are in control of their music. However, if the service is compelling, useful, and if the company builds a good reputation for being fair and trustworthy, then people could be convinced – no-one owns their phone numbers after all.
In the end, I think that network-based services will be used for easily, portable access to fulfil your fairly mainstream music needs. However, everyone will still want to retain control of their more obscure, rare, old, or most-loved music tracks, the ones they hold the most attachment to – and a hard disk full of MP3s is a good way of keeping them.

Might work, but one wrinkle is that if I am out there — somewhere — and want to listen to (for instance) Bring Back that Packard Car by Ducks Deluxe on my Moto which is in my iPod because I digitized it from my vinyl copy, but which is probably not on anyone else’s iPod because that track never made it to CD — like a lot of stuff I have on tape or vinyl — then the central repository will have to be supplemented somehow by one’s own network-linked hard drive, or in a perfect world gaily added without any copyright control to make everyone’s life more merry.

> … the first significant change of popular audio format that actually made the sound quality worse …
Christenson gives a strikingly similar example in The Innovator’s Solution: Sony’s original transistor radio. The sound quality was far worse than existing large radios but it offered the never-before advantage of portability, something incredibly important to teens wanting to listen to their music away from parents, etc.
Someone cleverer than I might want to apply Christensen’s ideas to the subject under discussion.

DUCKS DELUXE!! You don’t happen to have the live double 10″ Christmas at the Patti Pavilion do you John? I’m kicking meself for getting rid of it when I emigrated to the States.
There’s another major difference between LPs/CDs & iPods in addition to portability and that is music listening habits. Last night while cooking, I bunged on the venerable turntable Little Feat Waiting for Columbus (disc 1, side 1) closely followed by Steely Dan Can’t Buy a Thrill (side 1; I knew exactly what track was coming up next and any other order of play would have been a travesty. But many ipod listeners would’nt bother with listening to a whole album or perhaps they would not be concerned with the order of tracks, and listeners (like myself) are much more likely to mix & match artists material. Take Dark Side of the Moon – the track order is dead important to the music but when it get’s onto your iPod it ends up in a totally disconnected order. Now, when you deal in digital the emphasis switches from *collections* of music on albums or CDs to individual tracks or ‘tunes’ as they are called. This is a radically different way of listening – artists can no longer create ‘filler’ tracks to fill out a record or CD; they would just be ignored. Could we be seeing to return of the ‘single’ reincarnated in digital? Will the MAN band reform for the umpteenth time? Will I ever hear the drum solo from ‘Life on the Road – live at the Mumbles Run’ ?? These questions need answering!

Anarchist in the Library
I loved Siva Vaidhyanathan’s last book, Copyrights and Copywrongs. It’s a superb excellent intellectual and cultural history and critique of…

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