Convergence/divergence and the iPod

posted 29 July 2004

Tom Coates has a great post up about what will be the next big functionality in musical devices. He talks about ever-growing bandwidth, and practically unlimited storage, but then fails to make a vital connection, which given the enormous popularity of on-network P2P seems obvious to me: real world P2P.

One of the really big selling points of the venerable cassette tape was that it allowed people to copy and shares tapes: record companies didn't like this functionality, but there was nothing they could do about it. The Next Big Thing(TM) as well as the Next Big Fight(RIAA) will be when somebody invents a device that not only stores loads of music/video/data and lets you carry it around, but lets you share it with other people, wirelessly and easily. They might be sharing it by a common wireless network, but much more interesting would be if they didn't require any external infrastructure to work: if two wiPods meet in the desert, they can share songs.

The possibilities of such a device are giddying. If your friend hears a song they like, they can beam it over from their player to yours, and you to your friends. It would be sharing between real-world peers rather than merely anonymous strangers. A new song in San Francisco would spread from person to person and be in New York by lunchtime, without a record company needing to get involved at all. These devices would be enormously popular because each user would not have to build their own music collection from scratch: the more of your friends have wiPods, the more songs are available to you the instant you get one. In such a situation finding 10,000 songs to fill your wiPod would become extremely easy, and 100,000 not too much of a stretch. Music would cease being a collection, and becomes a sort of shared universal resource.

Of course record companies would hate this, so the manufacturer would have to be one with no allegiance to the record industry: i.e. not Sony and not Apple. But I don't care who makes it: somebody will. I'm by no means the first to speculate about such a device (the infamous Mr. Orlowski for one).

So given that your music/media portable player is going to have enormous short-distance bandwidth, it's not difficult to imagine somebody implementing a mesh network on top of those capabilities: and suddenly you have massive ever-shifting data network wherever you have people with these devices -- a lot could be done with that, too, especially if you hooked them into the global 'net through gateways at the edges.

And once you have a device with huge storage, huge bandwidth, and networking capability, you only have to cram a little more processing power in it... and you have a portable, wireless PC. And it could be a VoIP phone, too. And the argument comes back to the already-ongoing convergence argument: it's not "how much functionality can we cram into one device" it's "what form factor do people want this functionality in?". You could have a combined camera/mp3 player/phone/PDA/pocketPC -- but the user interface would have to be either unusably deep or bewilderingly wide to support all that functionality in a single device.

So will the music player fold into the mobile phone, or will we always find it convenient to have them as a separate device? I'd probably get one -- I can't listen to music when I'm on the phone, or vice versa, so it seems a pretty nice combination. The other combinations seem less obvious: I often want to listen to music while I'm working on my portable PC, and I don't want to have to switch between tasks on the same device to skip to the next song while I'm typing. I don't want my audio-only music/phone lumbered down with an unnecessarily large display by building a video player into it either -- but fitting that video player into the already-large screen of my portable PC seems quite natural.

Even more of a pipe-dream is that of a totally modular system: you'd have a core device with storage and networking, extremely small, and then you'd have a variety of peripheral devices that would provide various external capabilities: wireless headphones and maybe a small remote-control to handle audio playback. A nice-sized fold-out screen for watching video, and a fold-out keyboard for when you want it to be a PC instead.

Would such a device ever happen? It certainly sounds great, but there's lots of reasons it might not happen: such a complicated device might be prohibitively expensive. It might always be cheaper to have separate devices for these functions. And no single vendor might be good enough at all that diverse functionality to produce all those peripherals: but that could be solved by producing an open standard, so any vendor's screen/keyboard/headphones could talk to any other vendor's core unit. There will always be restrictions on how much bandwidth it's feasible or cost-effective to implement into a portable device -- but the tablet PC is proving that full video, by far the most bandwidth-intensive application, is already amenable to wireless transmission to a portable device.

None of those objections sound fatal. Can you guys think of any other reason this might not happen? If not, will somebody build one already?