November 2008 marked two years at Stamen for me, and I'm not done yet. Three purely technological things I'm excited about working with in 2009:
This post could probably use some supporting links, but I thought I'd get it out there before my first week back at work ended. Happy 2009 to you all.
I don't understand why CD shops don't offer a 'burn on demand' service (and do nice glossy artwork prints) or a 'top up my ipod' service for the tracks they don't physically stock. HMV in Islington only had 50% of the things I wanted today, and I'm still looking for the odd thing that I know is out of print (Coffee & Cigarettes soundtrack, anyone?).
Frankly, an entire record store could be replaced with one of those little buggies that people kit out to serve coffee (like this one). Mount an array of touch screens, provide USB jacks and charging points, scoot around looking for a captive audience. Why not put the same hardware on tube platforms, bus stops, or in the back of aeroplane seats.
I'm thinking of a mobile data centre, but it could be done through a network instead. Without the restrictions of a shop, where would people be open to buying download tracks? Could I walk along the beach with a custom laptop and sell you things for your ipod? What about parks? Nightclubs? Why aren't pubs and clubs offering a bluetooth-powered 'get the ringtone' service for the current playing track (why do they let services like Shazam have that potential business?).
The totally untethered version doesn't even need much in the way of upstream bandwidth - a 3G phone could serve the requests and they could be delivered from the iTunes store by satellite. For one user at a time, a 3G data connection alone would be enough.
How long before the iPod can access the iTunes store all by itself over GSM/3G/WiFi/Bluetooth and all of this speculation is rendered moot?
"Within a few years, electronically controlled insects carrying mini-cameras or other sensory devices could be used for a variety of sensitive missions - like crawling through earthquake rubble to search for victims, or slipping under doors on espionage surveillance."
"Moody reached into the jar, caught one of the spiders and held it in the palm of his hand so they could all see it. Then he pointed his wand at it, and muttered, 'Imperio!' The spider leapt from Moody’s hand on a fine thread of silk, and began to swing backwards and forwards as though on a trapeze. It stretched out its legs rigidly, then did a back flip, breaking the thread and landing on the desk, where it began to cartwheel in circles. Moody jerked his wand, and the spider rose onto two of its hind legs and went into what was unmistakably a tap dance."
-- Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling.
Matt Webb on pockets and mobile form factors:
"The modern form factor is that of the mobile phone: a fat oblong. You can have two of these per pocket and a handful of change. It fits in the palm, and comfortably in any pocket you're likely to have. There are pockets made in suits for exactly this size. New cameras are this size. You could probably sell a change of underwear and some breathmints in a disposable package this size. When we have glue devices - to plug into tvs to play games and see photos, to provide connectivity to a group, to play adhoc karaoke - they aspire to this size. What else?"
I see these mobile-form pockets in all sorts of places, normally empty, or (like two people I saw on the tube today) packed with tissues or sweets. I don't use the one on my bag, because it is uselessly placed between the strap and me. Outdoors, I need my phone against me so I feel it vibrate, and because I don't want the ringer on loud (it's rude). The custom pockets often have zippers and velcro, making them too inaccessible. So trouser pocket it is.
My new Rio Carbon is wedge-shaped, so it can be the last thing to go in my pocket. The scroll wheel can remain unlocked, so if I get the pocket arrangement right, I can change volume without looking. This wouldn't be the case with a custom fancy zippered pocket.
My pockets have holes in too, especially since I now have to carry four front door keys. Any solutions out there for a pocket-friendly key ring?
Matt Jones makes a nice analogy concerning the expected convergence of web-based services like Bloglines, Flickr or Blogger. Matt asserts that there will always be Home Info Theatre - the web equivalent of hi-fi separates - for those who want the highest quality services. The corollary here, then, is that sites like MySpace are the mini-systems of information space.
I use a similar argument to illustrate why there will probably always be separate gadgets, such as digital cameras and digital music players, despite the potential to integrate everything into one device (generally centred around a mobile phone). Most of the arguments which justify hi-fi separates will carry through to the gadget world - smoother upgrade paths, less chance of crippling failure, greater robustness etc. (the old, "small pieces, loosely joined" mentality). Of course, the downsides will apply too - separate components make for bulkier systems (more to carry), and the price is inevitably higher.
All this talk of convergence reminds me - I really want one of those Swiss Army Knife USB Storage things.
This seems like a good place to park some notes I've made on where I think the music industry should be headed. There's a long article or three hidden in there somewhere, but I'm not ready to write it yet.
General trends. Wherever I get my music, be it from a brick and mortar outlet, an online store, or direct from an artist or label I need the following qualities:
Retailers. They should be fixated by choice, but also by managing choice. Distribution is now easy, even high-street shops should be able to provide anything I want, instantly. I should never have to order, and wait. They could download the data, burn a CD and print the packaging in 5 minutes - so why don't they? Why don't black-market independent shops do this from iTunes or Napster - or do they already? If Amazon have a rich database full of recommendation material, why don't HMV or Virgin? Shouldn't I be able to pick up a CD, and find out what else I might like (maybe put it on a recommendation shelf, based on a barcode scan or something)?
Venues. All of them should be recording and distributing every performance, subject to artist approval of course. I know that instant post-gig CDs are in the works (and patent encumbered I believe) but that will only happen in the worst corporate-sell-out kind of a way, I'm sure. And only at the level where every show sounds the same, says the cynic in me.
Artists. They should be making their work available across the full spectrum - not just album tracks but also live/rehearsal/demo/acoustic/rare. They have the authority and sources of depth I was talking about earlier. Bands like Sigur Rós have already demonstrated online liner notes (onliner notes?) are viable with their untitled album, ( ), even if it was in the pursuit of absolute minimalism (no words, no titles, no stickers on the box...). Artists are aware that a loyal fanbase will pay for new material, especially if they get it first (before the radio, before the magazines and reviewers even).
Studios. Studios should be digital-distribution aware. Sound engineers should be too. It's the norm now for amateur and unsigned bands leave the studio with CDRs and immediately encode it at home to send to friends and promote online. Why don't the studios invest in professional quality encoders and use their mastering and mix-down knowhow to provide a range of good quality digital formats, optimised for the music in question? Ditto the standalone mastering people. Ditto CD pressing plants, who should be able to do mixed-mode CDs with a range pre-encoded tracks for sharing (free promotion).
Pricing. It's occasionally mooted that artists should give away recordings and make money touring. That's a poor excuse if people are willing to pay for recorded music, and we know they are. Artists will suffer from the volume and choice of alternatives, so the cost per track must come down. Actually, the cost per track must come down if iPod buyers are to be able to afford to fill their iPod. Likewise, if people want to pay per play, the cost must be negligable. Of course, steadily lowered prices reach a limit eventually. Unfortunately, that limit isn't 0, download fans. As cost-per-song reduces, it tends to a collective/blanket license. Otherwise there's no money in the system, and artists don't get paid. So, how should a compulsory license be paid? Could it be a digital music player tax? (Wasn't there a licensing levy on blank media?) Or should it be opt-in? (Wasn't there once a license which allowed people to record music from the radio in the UK?)
Fairness. The popularity of artists suffers from a power-law distribution, I'm sure. Should the proceeds from license fees use that distribution exactly, or should we work to flatten the distribution (progressive tax, in effect)? Are Britney Spears, Robbie Williams, Madonna and the Rolling Stones capable of making up the difference using the gravity provided by their own mega-brands? What about Elvis? Is making excuses for weighting towards the little guy the same as saying that artists should give away music and tour to make up the difference?