The search for convenience - is the iPod the new CD? ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

Nothing illustrates people's preference for convenience more than the evolution of money. Go from bartering goods (think rotting tomatoes), to (heavy) gold, to (less heavy) gold-pieces, to certificates of value, to paper-money, to credit-cards, to ... mobile phones(?) and I hope the point is clear. When it comes to money, people would rather not deal with it at all; they just want to be able to buy stuff.

The same applies to music-media and the need for quality vs. convenience. Take a live concert: the best possible quality of music, not only can you hear it in the best surround-sound possible, you can also see the band, and feel the emotions going through the crowd. It's exhilarating, at least I think so. Anything reproduced really only gives you half the quality. 

The tape became a success, even though they were accompanied by a lot of hissing, because it was so easy to integrate it into social life, like music should be. You could exchange it with friends, carry them in your pocket, even listen to it in your car. The CD really had the same qualities, with the added benefit of no hiss. And along came MP3s, worse quality than CDs again, with their compression and small sizes. Yet it became an instant success because we could exchange it globally, and it had no DRM for liberal home-use. You could burn it on cheap cds and play in your car.. yay!

convenient music.JPG

iPods are infinitely more expensive, and even though I got my 20 gigs worth for only €50 (student-deal), I don't think I would hesitate to buy a €300 model when mine breaks. The simple answer is convenience again. It is expensive, yes, but it's so nice to carry a device around that allows you to play songs in any order, create flexible playlists, as well as play podcasts and, for some (not me), play video and browse websites, even call / photograph people. How cool / convenient is that?

John Gruber wrote another good post about Amazon's new MP3 store and the fact that it works so well with iTunes and hence iPods:

People buy iPods because they love them. If your music doesn’t play on iPods, it isn’t going to sell. And so if (a) you refuse to sell music downloads without DRM; and (b) no other DRM system other than Apple’s is compatible with iPods; then we’re left with a situation where the only successful store is going to be iTunes. What Universal and EMI now seem to have learned, at long last, is that (b) is completely under Apple’s control; only (a) — the labels’ own willingness to allow their music to be sold without DRM — is under their control.

The point being is that people don't care about DRM, it will not affect the way they decide things. They did not buy at the iTunes store because they were locked into the iPod. They bought at the iTunes store because it worked so well with the iPod.

That said, the way Apple treats the rest of the world is disgraceful and I have yet to buy more than 1 song in iTunes. It pissed me of because I couldn't use it anywhere else, because US-customers get a more complete offering, including video, because I already feel like a criminal before I even stole anything... But hey, I agree with the core-idea of iTunes, not necessarily the legalese surrounding international business.

Allow me to digress for the rest of the post.

The dilemma of hardware-companies
w580i.pngRecently, I bought my brother a Sony Ericsson W580i phone. It has a lot of media-capabilities and is actually kind of cool. I like the way that Sony is trying to turn this little device into the new walkman. But there's two things I hate about it. One is that I need to use a special plug* with any headphones I want to use (they don't show you that in the picture). OK, it sucks, but I can deal with it. And two, the software that comes with the phone stinks!

It might be the computer (note that iTunes works well on that one), but as soon as the software started I was both confused and frustrated. Moving music is a three-step process; I had to dig to understand how to import my music; and the whole process is kind of slow... even lags down my brother's PC (might be his crappy PC :). But you could summarise the whole thing down to being pretty unsatisfactory. Alternatively you can use the phone as a hard drive and drag files to it using explorer, but it then doesn't import metadata, like eh what the artist is called and the album.

In both cases, Apple and Sony, you are restricted to using the software. But the iTunes experience is actually kind of nice (except if you want to export things — if it wants to become DRM-free it should also allow me to move music out of my iPod). You can create brilliant playlists, etc. iTunes is in fact the interface that no media-player manufacturer has as yet managed to create, both on the player or on the computer. And what you see with Creative, Sony, etc. is that they are clearly not software-companies, focussing all their energy on the player instead of the software on the computer. But I digress.

The point is that, even though the W580i is infinitely cheaper, it is not Walkman 2 or 3, because there is actually no improvement in the experience. In the technology, yes, in the experience it's a couple of steps backwards. The reason is very much Sony-specific; it has the weirdest business-structure where it splits all its divisions into a competitive matrix, where each has to fight for its yearly budget (if that sounds familiar, it's because public institutions like schools operate in the same idiotic way.) And because of this divided structure, there is no co-operation, no synergy. The hardware-people create brilliant hardware, like they've always done. The software-people, because they suck, create inferior software, and continue to under-perform under Sony's "interesting" mechanism of only rewarding the strong.

Businesses who want to compete for the next medium in music need to understand that customers make decisions based on a very simple principle: "How is my life better because of using your product?" You need to look beyond the lab, into people's homes to see if your hardware-solution might benefit from better software, or vice versa. Or else, you can't even hope to succeed against Apple.

The good thing about the rise of online media-stores, is that if you can create software that works well with them (e.g. Amazon imports music in to iTunes), as well as well with your player, you are already half way there.


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