Cloud Music: The Zombie Dinosaur Report

By Peter Drescher
May 20, 2012 | Comments: 0

I bet Devon Worrel of Intel that in the future, nobody will store gigabytes of music files on their phones, but will rather stream everything from the Cloud on demand. Devon thinks I'm wrong, and there's a case of champagne in the wager. Of course, declaring a winner might be problematic ...

But suppose I'm right, and 10 years from now, cloud music is "just the way it works": What would such a system look like ... and who would pay for it?

When I say "cloud music", I'm talking about fast, reliable, access to vast libraries of streaming music files stored on Cloud servers. This system does not yet exist, because it relies on completely ubiquitous ultra-wideband network connectivity to work. But we are already seeing prototype versions in services like Pandora and Spotify.

Cloud music is accessed by subscription. Audio files are not downloaded. You choose what you want to hear, and the Cloud sends your device a stream of data, which pools in a buffer, and plays on your speakers. When the stream dries up, no bytes from the song remain on your device.

Cloud music is radically different than iTunes. Media is not sold per item. Your subscription gives you access to all the songs available, at any time, on demand. Music is no longer "a thing that you own", but rather "a service that you listen to".

The user experience is almost identical. You pick a song on your device, and play it. In a world where network access is as ubiquitous and reliable as the power grid, it doesn't matter if the MP3 is stored in your pocket, or on a server in Mumbai.

Yes, it means if you're on a desert island in the middle of the Pacific, and there's no network, you can't listen to music. But increasingly, "no signal" will be a lifestyle choice, not a common inconvenience.

Eventually, having a "record collection" will seem like a quaint hobby. Why maintain your own personal collection of bytes and atoms, when every piece of music ever recorded in the history of mankind is available for free at the touch of a button?

"Free" as in unrestricted, not as in stolen. To build the cloud music system, many companies will have to cooperate, and all of them have to make money.

Project BBQ '11 Workgroup: The Zombie Dinosaurs Report

Last year, a bunch of really smart people got together at a haunted mansion outside of San Antonio, Texas, to discuss audio trends and mobile technologies. Our group wrote a report describing a Utopian vision of what cloud music might look like. We tried to design a system that:
  • prevents monopolization by any one company,
  • prevents balkanization of music services,
  • enables innovation at multiple levels,
  • provides compelling user experiences,
  • facilitates artist branding, and marketing opportunities.
That's a tall order! To start, we sought to define the various businesses required, and how they'd make their money:

Music Playback Devices -- Anything with a network connection and a headphone jack. Includes mobile phones, home and car stereos, PC, TV, and consoles. Consumers purchase devices from manufacturers.

Client Apps -- Access portal for listening to music. Free app for search, maintains your playlists on any Music Playback Device. Provides other services like social music networks, recommendation and discovery, music games, merchandising, media tie-ins and promotions.

Cloud Access -- Provided by the carriers, like ISP companies today, possibly with tiered subscription rates:

All You Can Eat   unlimited access to all music in the Cloud for a flat monthly fee.
A La Carte   limited access, or purchase on demand.
Free    unlimited access, supported by advertising.

Music Access Services -- Makes content on Cloud servers available to anyone, on demand, via open source API. They collect music usage and demographic information, for sale to data analysis companies and marketing groups.

Music Name Service (MNS) -- Like DNS for music files. A universal unified distributed database, cataloging all music content in the Cloud. Stores metadata for each file, including number of times played, used to determine royalty payments. Maintained by a non-profit technical organization, supported by member company dues.

Music Storage Providers -- Cloud server farms. Music Content Providers rent space to store their music files.

Music Content Providers -- Record labels, Artists, DJs, etc. They create content, market their brands, and receive royalties based on MNS data.

Now, how all those pieces work together, and how the money gets distributed, is a matter for debate. Certainly, Apple will need to think about iTunes differently, and other stake holders, like Facebook, T-Mobile, Spotify, Gracenote, ASCAP, Universal, et al, will need new strategies to make money in the cloud music business.

However, eventually, we hope to see a world where cloud access is considered a basic need of civilization, provided by government agency as a municipal utility, like water or roads, paid for by taxes. As part of a global network, it'll simply be how business is done.

In that environment, numerous Client App developers and Music Access Services will thrive, like shopping malls at highway exits. This also creates local economies, apart from the gigantic corporate revenue streams. And best of all, you'll be able to listen to any music you want, anywhere you want to, any time you want to, on whatever system is available, for free.

It's like having your own personal radio station, with an infinite record collection, and you're the DJ. And none of it is stored in your pocket ...

   - pdx

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