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Digital music nirvana isn't impossible, it just takes longer

DRM and network barons queer the pitch

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The idea of being able to play your music anywhere, on any device, has become a cliche without quite coming to pass. Viewed from a distance, this looks like one of technology's greatest failures.

If you're acquainted with Orb, Sling Media, or MP3Tunes - all of which fulfill that promise to some degree - you'll know how close we are to this goal. But for every breakthrough, it seems, there's yet another setback.

Look a little closer, and we see that for the most part it's not the fault of the basic technology components. The networks are in place, the hard drives are big enough and the processors are fast enough for "audio everywhere". And all are fairly affordable to a critical mass of the market, although the cost we bear is undoubtedly higher than it was in the analog era. [bootnote]

"If I can play it to myself, then I should be stream it to myself on any of my networked devices," says Orb Networks' EVP of product marketing, Ian McCartney.

Politics and greed are the problems.

This week Michael Robertson's MP3Tunes service enabled subscribers to play their iTunes music collection on their TiVo. That's no thanks to TiVo or Apple, though. It's possible because subscribers first upload their iPods to the "cloud", in this case MP3Tunes' servers, which then performs transcoding if needed. (Screenshots here.

Orb does something similar, although with a different architecture. In its case the PC punches a hole out to the network, and via Orb's servers - which also transcode if necessary - allow any device to access the media. Another approach, taken by Sling Media and a host of consumer electronics companies, is hardware based. Like Orb, the media files remain on your own devices, rather than being cached in the cloud. Sling concentrates on TV access, but the problems all three face in getting an end-to-end approach to work as expected are very similar.

As Robertson reminded us this week, what the Orbs and MP3Tunes are doing is removing incompatibilities - TiVo doesn't know what a WMA or an AAC file is - only to see technology vendors put new obstacles in front of us.

McCartney describes the digital download music services as "walled gardens". If you have bought a song from iTunes or Rhapsody, and you want it then and there, you're out of luck, he points out. While it allows a few manufacturers to sell a lot of gear - Apple being the biggest beneficiary - this isn't the solution to the problem - it's actually part of the problem.

He cites Sony's recent addition of Flash to its PlayStation Portable - in a form that nobbles audio playback -

For their part, both Robertson and McCartney pitch the copyright holders - who insist on DRM in the belief that technology can solve the problem - on the basis that their revenues will increase once the frictions and incompatibilities have been eliminated. McCartney pitches Orb to rights holders on the basis they have the final decision on formats.

"We say, 'Don't worry about it. Encode it anyway you want - just let people get to the stream and the home processor will take care of it."

Robertson, meanwhile, points out that MP3Tunes has published the API to its Oboe music lockers.

"TiVo is just one example of what we hope is a wide range of supported devices phones, PDAs, DVRs, Wi-Fi devices, and car stereos for example - each of which requires a different interface to work best." It's easier to browse your audio collection on a TiVO, he reckons, because the set top box has already bought, and the TV's already on, and the remote is (probably) already in the hand.

No need for then for Viiv, Windows Media Center or Front Row. Unless you already have one instead of a TV.

Robertson also touts security as a feature - there's always a permanent copy on the MP3Tunes servers.

(This raises the perennial question of whether you can really trust a start-up to secure your backup - and ensure it's there in many years time - but we won't go into that now.)

Network barons

But in addition to the turf wars between Sony, Microsoft and Apple, the seamless services face another threat, which McCartney says Orb takes deadly seriously. It's the prospect of the major network owners bumping off internet services that threaten their own content services.

"Verizon's VCast is the ultimate walled garden," he says.

While agreeing that the phrase "network neutrality" needs to be ditched for something more attractive - "neutrality also suggests you're hiding something," he says - McCartney thinks the technology lobby needs to do more in Washington to preserve an even playing field. Orb will be doing what it can.

For now the rivals have more in common than they have to squabble about. McCartney paid tribute to Robertson as "fantastic, a dynamic envagelist, and far and away one of the best speakers. He says that this is what the net is for - and he's absolutely right."

With digital audio and video services are reported with such enthusiasm that the fine details, the kind of things that doom great waves of capital spending, are overlooked. We still have a long way to go. ®

Bootnote: Finally a word on cost. Much like the Emperor's New Clothes, few have dared point out how much more digital costs, for lower quality audio.

Paul Sanders, of file-sharing ISP State 51, pointed out here last year, "the Total Cost of Ownership of music has really gone up from when all you needed was a £100 CD player and a set of shelves from IKEA. Now your cost of enjoying music is a computer - that's £400 to £1000 - another couple of hundred quid for your iPod, and in the UK, between £20 and £25 a month for broadband."

We rarely think of it like this, because we assume they're paid for. But how much more are people willing to pay? This is the cost of this friction, and we hope it's very temporary. ®

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