"But mom, everybody does it!"

The Ipsos Group is a marketing research firm. According to a recent survey, 18% of Americans 12 and over — about 40 million people — have downloaded music within the last 30 days. Most of them are males age 24 or younger (downloading activity falls by half in the 24-34 group, and by nearly half again in the 35-54 group). Few believe that downloading hurts artists, and almost nobody believes that downloading is wrong.

The most popular reasons given for downloading were:

  • To sample music online before making a purchase
  • To download songs they want without having to purchase an entire album
  • To get access to songs not easily available in stores

The RIAA probably interprets this data as “our customers are criminals”. But what it really says that the RIAA doesn’t understand their customers’ customers, and is therefore fumbling what’s supposed to be a leadership role during the transition to digital distribution.

Why isn’t there a legitimate way for me to get music not available in my local music stores, or even on CD at all because of the costs involved in duplicating and distributing them? Why isn’t there a way for me to sample music and then easily purchase (say, for 50¢) individual songs?

An MPEG-4 iPod? No, but…

One of the more interesting smart storage devices introduced at CeBIT was the Archos AV340, a 40 GB video player and recorder with a 640×368 screen. It stores up to 80 hours of content — that’s a minimum datarate of around 1 Mbit/sec — for viewing on the device’s 3.8″ screen or a television. It can also be used as a 3 megapixel digital camera with an optional attachment, and will apparently sell for just north of $500.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I believe that Archos either lying or confused about their MPEG-4 support. The press release specifically talks about the device’s MPEG-4 codec, and says that it supports MP3 audio rather than MP4 audio — that suggests that this device might just be a DivX AVI player/recorder rather than an MPEG-4 player/recorder, which makes it a short-term solution that I couldn’t recommend to anyone.

CeBIT bites

I just returned from a week at CeBIT. I’d hoped to be able to post regularly while I was there, but internet access where I was staying was too expensive to justify anything but critical communications, and my schedule was too packed during show hours to allow for browse-time via the open Wi-Fi base stations I was able to find in the messe (“fair”) halls.

CeBIT may be the largest computer trade show in the world, but the show was, on the whole, incredibly boring. (It’s not over yet, but I glad to be able to bow out early considering the threat of war and of SARS.) There were 10% fewer exhibitors this year than last year, which was in turn had 10% fewer exhibitors than the year before. (I haven’t seen estimates of how much they expected attendance to drop, but last year it dropped a shocking 21% compared to the year before.)

There were some interesting themes at the show…

  • Small, solid-state storage devices (like Sony’s USB 2.0 MicroVaults) and smart storage devices (hard drives with CPUs, like the iPod but with support for video and photos as well as music) were common.
  • Flat panel displays were everywhere, and I saw at least one effective 3D display that didn’t require special glasses. In my opinion, 3D video is inevitable, and I think that 2D displays and video/still cameras will be considered as quaint as mono audio within 10 years.
  • Wireless was a domiant theme, but the difference is that it’s being viewed as integral rather than optional. Intel introduced Centrino, which is chipset that includes a Pentium M (a new Pentium that doesn’t suck nearly as much as a normal Pentium for mobile applications) and wireless support. There were lots of consumer products with wireless support as well.
  • The show reinforced that DVD burners are becoming a commodity. There are still “dash” and “plus” camps, but although “plus” is the way to go if you have to pick one (given the format’s minor technical advantages and Microsoft’s support), “risk-free” multi-format drives will be available inexpensively from many vendors soon.
  • Finally, the more I consider it, the more I think that Tablet PCs are going to rule the earth. If Apple doesn’t have one of these in the pipeline now, they’re in trouble.

Other than that, gimmicks. PowerBook G4 clones (running Windows, of course), Windows CE for Automotive, the occasional booth featuring hot chicks dancing suggestively in the name of boring technology, etc. It’s a big show and I couldn’t have seen it all, though, so please comment if you were there and saw something interesting.

Interesting milestone for consumer voice-over-IP

I recently read The Innovator’s Dilemma, which is a great book by Clayton M. Christensen about why dominant incumbents rarely continue as anything more than crumb-catchers (if they aren’t forced out of business altogether) once a disruptive technology takes hold.

Voice-over-IP is a disruptive technology. VoIP used to be something that only large businesses could consider, but now it’s trickling down to consumers. VoIP probably means the eventual end of the current leaders in wired telephony, although history suggests that they won’t understand this until it’s too late.

Vonage is the first company that I know of to offer VoIP to consumers — for $40, you get unlimited calls to anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. Recently, they announced that they’d completed 10 million calls for over 15,000 customers over their network.

Now, Earthink is getting into the fray with Vonage as their partner. They’ll be reselling Vonage’s services to their 5 million customers, presumably using VoIP as a carrot for converting their 4+ million (and falling) dialup customers to broadband customers (which currently number just under 800,000).

I’m sure the wired telephony leaders are completely discounting Earthlink’s entry onto their turf, but in ten years they’ll see that this is when it all started to go wrong for them.

AOL's newest plan to get their chat on

Sun and Java. Apple and QuickTime. AOL and instant messaging. It’s a mixed blessing when a company’s most-interesting assets don’t come with a ready-made windfall.

AOL claims that about 40% of Americans from age 14 to 24 use AOL Instant Messenger (a.k.a. “AIM”). They say that 2.3 billion messages a day are sent through their systems — 1.6 billion through AIM and 760 million through ICQ.

Wow. That’s over 25,000 messages a second, folks.

(Speaking of ICQ, AOL acquired them in 1998. You’d think that an ailing company would be careful about redundancy, but nearly five years later ICQ effectively operates as a separate entity with a separate web site, separate servers, and separate client software for several operating systems in several languages. The way that ICQ’s integration into AOL’s business remains half-finished is probably helpful for understanding how well AOL has a handle on costs.)

So, AOL has an amazingly popular service that they can’t possibly be breaking even on with ad revenue. The question investors are asking is, “now what?” AOL’s new senior management (unlike that pesky old senior management?) says that they have an answer.

…it is no surprise that America Online’s new senior management, led by chief executive Jonathan F. Miller, has focused on IM, as it is known, as a powerful tool with the potential to provide the company with the fresh revenue needed to restore growth.

First, AOL will “attack” (the article’s word) the corporate marketplace. As one example of of the attack, AOL will be allowing Hewlett-Packard to devise new IM features to meet the specific needs of individual businesses.

Personally, I’m not sure how long The World will allow AOL to tell them what they can and can’t do with chat. Once technologies become commodities, standards always win. If AOL continues to play chicken with standards rather than drive them (although it’s probably too late for that), they’re going to turn around one day to discover that everyone’s happily chatting without them.

Apple to introduce Mac-only music service, MPEG-4 AAC support for iPod

The L.A. Times is reporting that Apple will be introducing a Mac-only music service, using iTunes as the client and MPEG-4 AAC (rather than MP3) as the delivery format. A source told the L.A. Times:

This is exactly what the music industry has been waiting for. It’s hip. It’s quick. It’s easy. If people on the internet are actually interested in buying music, not just stealing it, this is the answer.

Yeeesh — clearly an Apple marketeer using the Times to say what they can’t officially say as an Apple marketeer. Happily, just after that vacuous quote comes this useful perspective from the story’s author, Jon Healey:

That ease of use has music executives optimistic that the Apple service will be an effective antidote to surging piracy on the Internet, sources said.

Other legitimate music services have cumbersome technology and pricing plans — motivated in part by the labels’ demands for security — that make them much harder to use than unauthorized online services, such as the Kazaa file-sharing system.

Bingo. The customer is not the enemy, but the customer wants what they want. People wouldn’t steal music if there was a legit, reasonably-priced alternative that provided the same convenience and freedoms. In fact, commercial services should be able to provide far more convenience with features like better searching, affinity-based recommendations, and fast and reliable downloads. But if the Apple service uses DRM to restrict what users can do — and the L.A. Times story suggests that it will — then Apple’s service is going to suffer from the same lethargic uptake as the others.

Apple has apparently signed up four of the five major labels — BMG (Bertelsmann), EMI Group, Universal Music Group (Vivendi Universal) and Warner Music Group (AOL Time Warner) are reportedly on board. Sony Music Entertainment is holding out because — and try not to choke on the irony — they’re concerned that users will be allowed to put purchased music on CDs. One wonders if it might be better for Sony Music if just stopped selling CDs immediately.

Partnering with Apple is a brilliant move on the part of the labels. Not only do Mac users tend to consume more music than the average Wintel user, but it means that they can avoid supporting Mac OS in their own offerings. And with less than 3% of the PC marketshare, the Apple’s customer base is a good place to experiment with business models.

Still seeking contributing editors

Apologies for the erratic posting schedule this week — next week’s should be back to normal. (If you or someone you know is interested in sharing interesting digital media news with a couple thousand folks a day, be sure to ask me about being a PlaybackTime contributing editor.)

When only the very worst Mac software will do

One of the more popular Mac sites is VersionTracker, which tracks the latest versions of most Mac software using a pleasant (albeit personality-free) newest-first list format surrounded with as much advertising as possible. It’s useful, and (like many useful things) boring.

In contrast, the bitchy PerversionTracker much more entertaining.

The highly trained PerversionTracker staff locates the very worst of Mac software. We search the web for 15 minutes a day — so you don’t have to!

How can you not love a review of the horrible-but-strangely-revered Opera brower that starts like this?

Using Opera is like slipping on a comfortable pair of shoes, and then discovering that your formerly comfortable shoes have been surreptitiously filled with broken glass. As you make this realization, a troupe of baboons rounds the corner, baring and snapping their grisly teeth. They howl and begin to chase you. Knowing you’re the only fresh meat for miles, you start running from this horrible Ape Menace, suspecting that you have somehow fallen into the hands of the Global Monkey Conspiracy. As the simian horde draws closer, in your desperate panic to get away, you slide into a steep ravine. As you strike bottom, you awake, in bed. It was all a dream. You are safe, asleep, and your computer has only non-Opera browsers installed.

Answer: You can’t not love it.

"We don't serve your kind here…"

Dive Into Mark, a great blog whose name inevitably conjures slightly disturbing imagery when read the first few times, has a cool article on how Mark used Apache and the mod_rewrite module to stop evil spambots, spybots, and unwanted robots — by definition, those that don’t respect the Robot Exclusion Standard — from stealing his bandwidth, content and email addresses.

Some will say that the Internet is a public place, and if I don’t want something abused, I shouldn’t put it on the Internet. Well, that’s true. It is also true that if I don’t want to get mugged, I shouldn’t leave my house, and if I don’t want calls from telemarketers, I shouldn’t have a phone. But I like leaving my house, I like having a phone, and I like having this web site.

Amazingly, a particularly evil — if not malicious, then programmed by friggin’ idiots — “plagiarism prevention system” called Turnitin hit his site nearly 20,000 times in January, using up over a gigabyte of transfer bandwidth in the process.