A cloudy forecast for digital music

May 25, 2011

Just in time for data caps, your music is going into the cloud.

It’s been a long, strange trip for the mp3 player. Born into relative obscurity, it only became a first class digital citizen when Apple got into the game with the iPod — the first portable music player with an unforgettable name.

From the introduction of this breakthrough device in 1998 as a clunky handheld hard disk, to its reinvention as a sleek, video-enabled flash-drive to its elegant evolution as an app, the ability to carry around your music has been a major driving force in the design and adoption of mobile devices.

The habit of never leaving home without music made it possible to imagine toting around TV shows, movies, books, magazines and newspapers on the pocket computer that also makes phone calls. It provided a major reason for increasingly capacious — and pricey — smartphones and tablets.

Now, in what seems like the blink of an eye, there is a paradigmatic shift afoot to move music out of your hip pocket and into the cloud. The advantages are many: no longer will your collection be tied to a single computer and a single portable. You’ll have a built-in backup — when your computer inevitably fries you won’t (pardon the expression) miss a beat.

The downsides include a huge one: you won’t be able to access your collection unless you have an Internet connection. Fortunately, all smartphones and many tablets have connectivity built in — and those devices which don’t bring their own Internet can usually be tethered to something which does.

But the nirvana this might have been is tainted by a push from wireless carriers, coincidentally or not, to eliminate unlimited data plans, raising the specter that you will be socked with extra fees for listening to a little too much Gaga, Krall or Spalding.

Apple (as it is wont) is mum on the subject of converting its revolutionary iTunes ecosystem into the cloud. But it bought, and shuttered a year ago, a service called Lala which did all this. In this very busy year for audio, Amazon became the first major player to get into the act with “Cloud Drive.” It was followed by Google, whose “Music Beta” (always a beta with them) offers free space for 20,000 songs.

Apple’s entry into the mix is seen as inevitable. With eight years of experience, hard-fought deals with all the major labels — and now even the Beatles — the last to market will be the one that makes it “real” for most music fans.

Neither Amazon nor Google have any deals with the labels, which makes them, in the words of veteran digital music reporter Eliot Van Buskirk, “essentially glorified hard drives: You have to upload every song yourself — a process that can literally take up to a week, hogging your computer’s processor and your internet connection’s bandwidth … ”

But the music gods giveth, and they taketh away. This summer Verizon will join the rest of the wireless world in ceasing to offer unlimited data plans. And I’m convinced that the battle lines with consumers over capped data plans will be drawn around the prospect of onerous overage charges for the simple pleasure of playing your music.

Yes, video hogs more bandwith and eats your bytes faster. And we know that Netflix streaming accounts for the bulk of Internet traffic during prime time. But you are much more likely to be playing music than watching TV with your data plan — commuting, running, waiting on line somewhere — at times when you are truly in motion and not just mobile. Video is far more anchored pursuit — at home or the office — places where you’ll be using WiFi.

It’s not clear to me that the benefits of offshoring our music to havens provided by Apple, Google and Amazon will be compelling if the telco toll takers make it a costly proposition. Which would be terrible, because everything that has happened in the brief history of the Internet has been delivering us to powerful, portable devices that that make everything the world has to offer always within reach.

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Just one more reason to nationalize the Internet transport mechanisms of the telcos, and cable providers. Ubiquitous Internet access is essential for the U.S. to be a viable global competitor. We need seamless availability for all citizens at the lowest possible cost.

Rather than hold the rest of us hostage to the telcos and cable providers’ schemes to become profitable content providers, nationalize the Internet transport mechanism and let the telcos and cable providers compete with other content providers on a level playing field.

Then the rest of U.S. can get down to our business at the fastest speeds, lowest cost, and without limitations.

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