A friend gave me an idea the other day. What if you could control your iPod by voice, in the same way that you can dial numbers on a cellphone? What if you had a small hands-free mic on the headphone cable that you could use to issue commands: Play, Pause, Back, Forward, Next, Previous, Louder, Softer… ?
An interesting idea indeed. But let’s go a step further. What if you could record, through this mic, the names of playlists, albums or songs, the way you record names on a cellphone, and start them playing as well? Let’s face it – when the iPod’s in your pocket, it’s a hassle to take it out and change what’s playing. Sure, with the wired remote (in my opinion, an indispensable accessory) you can perform the same actions as with the click wheel or the buttons on the front of your iPod. But you can’t access specific playlists, albums or songs.
This would be great for lots of people. Imagine when you’re walking home in the freezing cold and you don’t want to take your gloves off and get your iPod out of your pocket or its case? Or when you’re jogging, biking, hang-gliding or even driving and can’t take the time to look at the iPod’s screen? Or when you’re in an intimite situation and just have to get that Barry White music on – you don’t want to have to stop, find the iPod (which is plugged into speakers in this type of situation) and change the playlist.
The technology is there. Is the need real though? I think it is, for many people. What do you think?
Update: Les Posen pointed out that he has already suggested this. Thanks for pointing this out, Les.
So, you know that iTunes lets you listen to Internet radio. That’s great, and it lets you discover lots of music you’ve never heard before. It’s especially good if, like me, you live in the country and don’t have many FM radio stations.
But there should be more. Apple should introduce iTunes Music Store radio stations, to play selected tracks available from the iTunes Music Store. Why? Well, when you go into a bricks-and-mortar store, you can see thousands of CDs. When you go into the iTunes Music Store, you only see a few dozen for each genre. Okay, up that to at least 100 for each, since you can look at the list of top albums or top songs. But that’s not much. Especially if you aren’t interested in the best-sellers.The iTunes Music Store is great when you know what you are looking for – you can search by song, artist, album or composer, and listen to previews. But what about all the other music you’ll never hear because you’ve never heard of it? If Apple were to create one Internet radio station for each genre, listeners could discover much more music. I can imagine that a simple double-click on the song name in the iTunes display would take you to that song on the music store.
The reason behind this idea goes beyond simple commercialism. Sure, Apple would sell more music, but it would also allow more artists to get their music heard. Listen to any FM radio station today and you’ll hear about 30 songs in rotation, over and over. We need variety; musicians need exposure; and Apple would get sales. Everyone would be happy.
I don’t usually post articles here that simply point to other web sites or blogs, but today I’ll make an exception. Merlin Mann, writing at 43 Folders, has a very insructive article entitled Five Mistakes Band & Label Sites Make. He points out how many bands and record labels just get it wrong when it comes to their web sites. From Flash-based sites, to non-existant MP3 tags on downloads, lots of bands just don’t grok the web. (Though it’s not necessarily their fault; a lot of these problems come from general web-design trends, and most musicians don’t know enough about the web to understand how limited their web sites are.)
When I was researching my latest book, iPod & iTunes Garage, I came across the same problems. One of the most annoying was the lack of any contact information for many bands and musicians, even those whose renown is limited. Since, for my book, I wanted to contact musicians and ask them what they considered “essential music”, I found this especially annoying. Sure, the bands would have to filter out basic fan e-mails from serious requests, but unless you’re an A-list band, you should welcome any kind of publicity.
The media are all focused on the resounding success of the iPod – by all accounts, Apple should reach the 10 million mark by the end of the year, which is great for Apple, for its stock price, and for my forthcoming book on the iPod and iTunes.
But while the iPod has attracted a whole new group of users to Apple’s fold – notably Windows users – the real revolution is not in the hardware, but in the software that manages the iPod. iTunes is much more than simply a tool for managing music, and, in the near future, is likely to spearhead the real digital content revolution. iTunes started out several years ago as a simple program for organizing, managing and playing MP3 files, and for burning CDs from these music files. Apple was not a trailblazer in this area; there had already been several other programs that played music files. As it progressed over the years, it developed powerful new features, such as new file formats like AAC and Apple Lossless, and the ability to sync music to the iPod, when the portable music device was released. But the real innovation – and the part that merits the word “revolution” – came when Apple added the iTunes Music Store.
If you’ve never bought music from the iTunes Music Store (iTMS), the hallmark of the process is simplicity. You create an account, enter your credit card number, find the music you want, then: click! Download. Click! Download. It’s as simple as that. You can buy one song, start downloading it, then go browse and buy more songs. When you purchase music like this, you don’t even notice the time it takes for songs to download (unless you are connected to the Internet with a modem). If you purchase entire albums, it will seem to take longer, but if you have a relatively decent Internet connection, you’ll be able to download an album in minutes.
Revolutionary? Not yet… Because there’s more. Sure, the iTMS lets you download music with a few clicks, but the real revolution will come later, when the iTMS sells more than just music.
It’s tempting to predict the future, though perilous in the computer industry. But looking at the iTMS and the way it works shows that Apple’s real revolution is in having designed a simple, fast, efficient and painless way to sell digital content. Sure, they’re only selling music now. But just wait…
Why does Apple offer movie trailers in the iTMS? Certainly not because they sell movies… yet. But the interface is there; all they need is for users to have broadband fast enough to download movies (and, of course, the MPAA’s acceptance of Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) system). It seems almost obvious that Apple will, in the near future, sell movies through the iTMS. When you’ve gotten consumers used to using a system that works, that is easy to use, and easy to understand, it makes sense to leverage it for other purposes. Those movie trailers are simply a way to get users prepared, to have them think of iTunes as more than just for music.
But why stop there? I’ve already suggested that Apple should make an e-book reader, and focus on selling periodicals. The iTMS could easily deliver that kind of content as well; after all, Apple has already shown that they can deliver PDF files through the iTMS. Why not sell magazines and newspapers using the same interface? Users could buy individual issues, which would download as easily as songs do today; or they could buy subscriptions that are provided through the iTMS. In the latter case, you’d simply need to connect your e-book reader to your computer to get the latest issues that iTunes has already downloaded in the background. Or you could read them on your computer.
The digital content revolution is only just beginning. Music is the first step, since it is one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and it ends up being one of the simplest to transfer over the wires. But anything that can be digitized can be sold in the same way. Of course, there are still limits: music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers; there’s no way to download pizza, at least not yet. But if you look at the numbers that these different forms of content represent, you’ll realize that Apple is on track to becoming much more than a hardware and software company. With iTunes, and the iTunes Music Store, Apple has taken the first steps toward becoming the leader in providing downloadable digital content.
Apple has regaled us with a new iPod, with a color screen and photo display functions, rounding out the iPod range. There are now three distinct types of iPods: the mini, the 4G iPod and the iPod Photo. So, for a while, we can consider that Apple will rest and allow these iPods to sell a bit.
In the meantime, it is clear that Apple’s recent foray into non-computer devices for consumers has been profitable in many ways. The iPod has boosted Apple’s earnings, profit margin, and share price, and has turned the company, once again, into the darling of the business world.
So it’s time for Apple to release another innovation: the Apple iServe.First, don’t assume that I have any inside information on the possible existance of such a device: this is merely what I would like to see. But this idea is based on existing Apple technology and would follow what seems to be the direction Apple will be taking in the years to come.
The Apple iServe would be a home server, a headless Mac (one without a monitor) that would centralize all the elements that make up a user’s digital hub: music files, photos, and videos. It could also store other personal files such as word processing documents and spreadsheets. Instead of each user storing their files on their own computer, they could put everything in one place, providing simpler access to other users, and allowing for backups of all users’ files simultaneously.
This is most useful for “digital hub” files: music, photos and videos. Why should each user’s computer contain all their music files, many of which may be duplicated on another user’s Mac? (Considering that the iTunes Music Store allows up to 5 computers to play the files, this is not a violation of copyright; the same is true for music files that users rip from their own CDs.)
In this scenario, all the Macs on a home network would be connected to the server via AirPort – the server could contain an AirPort base station, or simply be connected to a base station or an AirPort Express. An Ethernet jack would allow the iServe to be connected to a wired network, which could include other Macs without AirPort or computers running Windows or Linux. Users would be able to access shared files by simply mounting the server on their desktop, or would even be able to play music using iTunes built-in music sharing – the iServe would run iTunes itself, or a simpler version of the program, to provide a shared library to other computers on the network.
But let’s not stop there. iPhoto offers photo album sharing, so users can access photos on the iServe from any Mac. Videos would be a bit more complex, since iMovie is merely an editing and authoring tool, but, again, the technology exists to provide shared video in a manner similar to iTunes’ shared music.
If the iServe were to go one step further, it could even be used in the living room to record video from a TV, set-top box or decoder; the Apple version of the TiVo would be a welcome competitor to Microsoft’s forays into this area. Or Apple could simply work hand-in-hand with TiVo to provide a seamless connection to their TV recorder.
The iServe would run a slimmed-down version of Mac OS X Server, one that allows simple management of users and groups, either through an Apple Remote Desktop server or through a web-browser interface. Since the iServe should be small – remember the cube? – it wouldn’t need a monitor, keyboard and mouse, though it should be possible to connect these if desired.
The Apple iServe would be the perfect solution to the once-hyped convergence of computers and other digital entertainment devices. If it were priced right (less than $500; ideally even cheaper than that), Apple could spearhead a new world of home computing. And, with a small business model, offering more advanced server features, the same iServe could help Apple get a stronger foothold in the critical market of businesses who need such features but cannot afford the time or the complication of full-scale server solutions.
This is just an idea, of course, but who knows? Maybe Apple will surprise us…
The fine people at Change This have posted an attractively laid-out PDF of a speech Cory Doctorow gave to Microsoft about DRM (digital rights management). Cory has a way with words, and he puts his words where his mouth is, by giving away the novels and stories he’s written.As the Change This website says:
Usage of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been hotly debated since a college student threatened to put an entire industry out of business with a little application he built in his spare time, Napster. In this transcript of a speech he gave at Microsoft’s campus, Cory explains why DRM doesn’t work, why DRM is bad for society, bad for business, bad for artists, and a bad move for Microsoft. Using Sony and Apple as examples of companies that are using DRM to *punish* consumers, he suggests Microsoft use the opportunity to once again champion users’ rights. To follow our current path, Cory argues, is to stifle innovation and contradict the purpose of American copyright law: to promote the useful arts and sciences.
There is an irony in this document being made available in a proprietary format: PDF. But since you don’t need Acrobat to read it – there are several other PDF readers, including Preview, if you use Mac OS X – I guess that’s all right.
in any case, it’s an intereting read, as Cory goes over the history of copyright and piracy.