The end of the iPod era?
I love iPods, and by the same token their frequently less visually appealing, and un‑fruit‑branded, MP3‑playing cousins. I think it's brilliant that they've allowed musicians to drop musical examples easily into conversation and to share influences at the swap of an earbud. It's also great that music download sites make it so easy to explore the breadth of music history, whether fashionable or not, and also provide retail exposure for less mainstream talent.
So why don't I own an iPod, then? It's certainly not the audio quality that holds me back — the sound's fine for general browsing and listening purposes, much as cassette used to be. The real reason is that I think the iPod, revolutionary as it has been, is actually just a commercial stop‑gap, because I don't think most people actually care about owning music any more. They just want to listen to what they want, when they want. In short, they value access, not ownership.
Now I actually own loads of CDs (remember them?), because I am one of the minority willing to pay for higher‑quality audio. But I acknowledge the fact that I'm rapidly becoming a dinosaur in this regard, missing out on the advantages currently enjoyed by those whose digital lifestyles are already fully hubbed. Nonetheless, because the iPod still requires you to own the tracks you listen to, I still don't want to get involved, because of the pain of dealing with any music files I accumulate. Storing them. Deciding which ones to put on which size of iPod. Migrating them to updated hardware. Trying to remember to back them up. Hoovering up splinters of the iMac that I've just kicked to death because it's corrupted the disk containing the library that I forgot to back up. You know the sort of thing.
What's most recently woken me up to the demise of the ownership model is that I noticed that although I really like watching films, I own no DVD collection. I'm perfectly happy to pay a monthly subscription to a web‑based library that allows me to access anything I might ever want to watch without having to buy, organise, house, insure or back up my own set of DVDs. And how much better if this service could stream roughly‑TV‑quality films to a portable handset to play on demand when and where I fancied? Although bandwidth restrictions put the kibosh on this daydream for films at the moment, I understand from friends of mine in the mobile phone industry that it's already a much more viable prospect for MP3‑quality audio.
Humour me while I imagine a time when you might pay a subscription to receive a certain number of MP3 track 'plays' (or time‑limited downloads) selected from an iTunes‑style database, via your existing mobile phone — the fee might even be bundled as a sweetener with your phone contract, like free call minutes. I think that any portable music library, iTunes or otherwise, I'd actually built up before that point would seem pretty much obsolete. (And after all that backing up, too...)
So I'm holding my breath for the subscription model of music consumption to come of age. And I have a feeling it may bring other benefits with it. For example, I think it might hold the key to dealing with the music industry's copyright theft problems. As Paul Sellars argued back in SOS March 2009, DRM technology can currently make you feel as if actually owning music is less convenient than stealing it online. But if your music access were near instant, offered practically unlimited choice, and were bundled as part of your mobile phone package, I think that web‑based file‑sharing would seem a hell of a lot less convenient by comparison. And wouldn't it be a lot easier to prosecute illegal music-streaming services or phone‑phreakers than to rely on largely ineffectual legal sabre‑rattling against thousands upon thousands of peer‑to‑peer MP3 rustlers? Finally, I think that 'per‑play' royalty streams from establishment on‑demand services might enable more widespread support for niche music from the mass‑market. My Internet DVD subscription certainly made me more experimental in my choice of films, because I knew that it made no difference to the fee I'd already paid.
So, my slogan: Death to the iPod! It's done great things, but the sooner we're shot of it, the better.
SOS contributor Mike Senior thinks that the access model would work for all sorts of other lifestyle areas. His wife has yet to be convinced.