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Carterware - it's the new vapourware

Virgin, Universal in rush to babble incoherently

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Comment We all know what vapourware is. It's a class of product that's announced with great fanfare, typically in response to a competitor, or as simply The Next Big Thing. But betwixt the announcement and the launch, many months and years may pass, and sometimes the vapour never condenses into a product at all. Now meet its cousin - Carterware.

Carterware is vapourware that's specifically announced in response to a Government directive. The Virgin-UMG deal announced certainly ticks the first box of the Carterware criteria.

The Government wants ISPs and the music business to sort out their differences themselves on music piracy. Last year's MoU promised they'd do something: better services and some kind of attempt at "behaviour change", ie. not menacing downloaders. But as yet, we've seen nothing that fulfils the consumer demand of sharing music, for which most of the public would apparently part with a fair bit of cash. So this is software or a service announced in response to a Government edict.

The Virgin-UMG deal looks like it may be the start of a compelling proposition - an all you can eat, no strings-attached bundle. But without wholehearted label support, the service is rather meaningless, and it's such early days that no one else is on board. Incredibly, the most flexible licensee of all in the music business, the PRS, hasn't granted Virgin a license yet.

That ticks the second box for Carterware: announce something in a hurry. A cynic may be tempted to think that it's all to do with Stephen Carter's Digital Britain report, to be unveiled later today. Best to announce something - anything - that shows ISPs and music are making some progress.

Nevertheless, it looks like a long haul before the as-yet-unnamed service will get the support it needs. Having only UMG on board at this stage isn't necessarily fatal: it's the world's biggest label and when Nokia announced its unlimited (albeit tethered) music program Comes With Music, it only had UMG too. But getting a critical mass took months, and it was a year before it finally launched.

There is no escaping from two awkward facts.

The first is that we've seen nothing since July last year that mutually benefits either business sector in any significant way. Spotify is a good example. It's fantastic to use - but it's grim for the suppliers, whichever way you look at it. Spotify ramps up traffic costs for the ISP, and for the labels it removes the need for us to purchase music to listen to at home, since it's "always there". Someone wondering about the long-term viability of Britain's internet business may ask why the two parties are so enthusiastic about a circular firing squad.

Secondly, by failing to grasp the P2P challenge, it's ignoring the most potent unmet demand for music yet created by digital technology.

When the music publishers and many independents first saw Napster in 2000, they concluded that nothing short of this would satisfy the public, and that something very like it should be licensed, legal and a revenue source. Yet here we are, unable to get the music suppliers and networks to agree. P2P also solves the repertoire problem - it's much easier to 'crowdsource' the repertoire and use what we have on our hard disks already as back catalogue - as a starting point - than haul digital catalogues online, with all the gaps and omissions.

This year's announcements show that the music and ISPs have one thing in common: they both share an anti-business, anti-revenue strategy. That sadly ignores what we actually want to do. ®

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