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iPod in 12 years: still won’t hold it all

Filed in: design, media, Tue, Dec 5 2006 14:36 PT

Nikesh Arora, who is Google’s VP for European operations, was quoted last week musing about the future of the iPod, saying, “In 12 years, why not an iPod that can carry any video ever produced?”

It’s a question I’ve been asking for a while now. The first time was in 2003, when I started my crusade for the personal server. I repeated myself shortly thereafter as I called out the analytical no-op that is John C. Dvorak. The situation has changed a little since that time with the video iPod, though the storage available on iPods has only doubled, from 40GB to 80GB. But the potential is there, and sooner or later, it will be realized. In fact, it needs to be realized in order to satisfy the growth needs of both the consumer electronics and entertainment industries.

On its face, the idea of an iPod that contains all recorded music is actually pretty feasible in the next decade or so. Figuring about 20,000 major releases a year, at 60 minutes a release, at 192kbps encoding, that’s only about 1.8 terabytes. I can say “only” to a number like that because I remember when an array of that size was a half million dollars, and then $50,000, and now I can buy a 2TB array at Fry’s for about $1000. A futurist can safely assume that anything available today for a grand will eventually be embedded in someone’s cerebral cortex at birth, so we’ll go with it.

Anyway, let’s say that’s all there is to it for now. In fact, let’s say that we have 100TB of disk to play with, and that’ll hold all of the major releases ever recorded. Is that what we really need? Well, probably not, for a lot of reasons. Firstly, unless it’s truly convenient to slap everything ever recorded onto a single storage device, where “convenient” means “more cost-effective than filtering it all at a central source,” then you can achieve most of what you want in, say, five years. Assuming a collaborative filtering approach à la Last.fm, we’re already past the tipping point: storage is growing at a rate faster than users can fill it, and that empty disk is an opportunity to sell people what they might like.

The next piece of the puzzle, then, is the payment strategy. How do you grant access to any or all of this music, when it is in the wild? Once the bits themselves are decentralized, the commerce end of things needs to be decentralized, as well, or the entire system provides no value to users. If I am in Darkest Africa and I want to listen to the Fugees, and know that The Score is on my device, but I have no way to unlock it, that’s a problem. The only strategy that to me makes any sense is a subscription model, but even that has implicit hooks into a central certifying authority to prevent freeloading.

A bigger question is this: what role does the network play? Let’s say Apple offers a 10TB iPod that contains all of the media an average human would want. What happens next Tuesday, when it’s out of date? How do they sync up with the latest releases? We’ve been working on syncing technology for years, and we’re still not that smart about it. We’re going to need something to keep everyone with one of these devices up to date (and paid up), and the network we have isn’t really the best strategy for that.

Maybe true broadcast technology would help — say, investing in a one-way radio data infrastructure that keeps everyone informed. SPOT, on steroids. Or maybe most of the work can be done virally, by peers syncing with one another ad hoc, and without interaction. Or have media pushed to clients as they shop or dine or play. Ad-hoc sharing is a really powerful idea, as the Zune people know, though the mechanisms currently in place to restrict that sharing have reduced its value overall.

There’s a lot more to think about here. Enough to make a career of it, in fact. Where do indie labels and artists fit in? How do they add new releases to the system, and how can they hope to be compensated? What is the role of YouTube, et al., in systems like this? What if you’re an American in France, or a Frenchman in America, or just culturally calibrated enough to want both? When do the walls between nations come down, so that we can experience all the media the world has to offer?

The answer is that we’re not prepared to build a framework to support pervasive media concepts like this until a few more things shake loose. The 80% case here can be achieved in the next couple of years, if not for legal affairs and the conservatism of the rightsholders in this area. But there are big technical problems to solve, and it’s going to take a lot of coordinated thinking to analyze the infrastructural, social, legal, financial, psychological and design factors necessary to build a viable ecosystem.

We’ll get there. But it’s going to take a lot more than big portable storage devices to do it.

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