Friday, December 22, 2006

Houston, we have a negative on that assumption.

A while ago I read an article in The Ec*nomist about mobile phones. What has happened, what is happening, what's next? In the middle of this article is some speculation from the "futurists" in the business about future features. A projector instead of a display, turning any flat reflective surface into a large screen. One futurist commented that in the future, all music ever recorded might be on-chip in solid state form. You take the phone in to the shop periodically to get the chip refreshed with the latest additions. As you pay for them, the tracks are unlocked and you can access them.
From a storage viewpoint this makes sense; as storage gets closer and closer to free it is reasonable to put everything on there and let the customer pick out the good bits, instead of customizing each chip and thus create more overhead and hassle for the maker.
The question is; does this make any kind of sense for the customer?
The actual situation, viewed with clear eyes, is this: duplication of non-corporeal goods is becoming cheaper and cheaper by the minute. Taking the techno-buddhist "make me one with everything" approach hails from this insight - It costs more to have people in production removing songs than to simply give everyone the whole bundle. Still, we are expected to treat what is an essentially free copy (in manufacturing terms) as an expensive original and pay for it. I think there will be widespread resistance to this. I think people will say "all of this is already on chip, and you expect me to still pay a premium price?!?" and flat out refuse. The phones will sell like hotcakes, but every single hacker in the world will be busy looking for unlock codes.
Perhaps it is finally time for the music biz to enter the new century along with the rest of us. The financial model used so far is bogus, since the cost of copying and distributing copies is nil. When you are in the business of selling material goods, such as a 78 RPM recording for instance, you are handling something that is fragile, hard to copy and has a value of its own. When you are in the business of selling files on a chip your costs for copying is zero. Nothing can be really damaged in transit, so there is no fragility aspect and a file has very little value on its own. Looking at a small icon with the words "Norwegian wood" next to it is not in any way comparable to holding an album with artwork, looking at the lyrics of Norwegian wood and reading the liner notes. The song is part of a package in the old version. Both copies require a special player to make the music audible, but the electronic copy can be copied to a hundred friends with the tap of a finger while the album takes training, expensive equipment and talent to duplicate even once.
Also, let us take an example not rooted in music. Peoples minds lock up when music is the topic, since the music industry has poured millions into the project of muddying the waters regarding copyright, licencing etc and the results are showing.
Let us instead consider "knowledge". Putting an encyclopedia in a phone is no problem as prices plummet and capacity soars. Imagine this; the HQ corporation releases its latest VerySmartPhone that has a complete Encyclopedia Brittannica on chip, along with a thesaurus or three and about five shelves full of schoolbooks. A nice dollop of knowledge. The HQ corp then says "The phone is $100, and you'll have to pay another $100 for the books or we'll seal them so you can't read them". In other words - pay us or we'll take knowledge away from you.
I don't know about the rest of you, but to me that is an act of aggression. Selling me something and then keeping me from using it to its fullest potential is stupid, arrogant and mean.


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