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Brian Lamb Rocks

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

Tonight (Christmas eve) C-SPAN will air an hour-long interview with me on its “Q and A” program. The estimable Brian Lamb, C-SPAN’s CEO, did the honors. He told me afterwards that my appearance was unusual for C-SPAN which focuses on politics and such, not stuff like technology and music. But he is an iPod lover, and enjoyed The Perfect Thing.

Lamb says he has around 5600 songs on his iPod (more than I have, incidentally–I’m just breaking 5000, but that should rise as I recently got a MacBook Pro and no longer have a full hard disk drive), and to my delight, he loves the novelty and mystery of the shuffle function as much as I do.

I always think it interesting that more people do not use the shuffle function. If you read the book, by the way, you know I am a nut on this subject. I usually ask audiences two questions: first, how many have iPods, a query that gets almost everybody’s hands up. Then I ask how many listen to their whole collection, or a big chunk of it, in shuffle mode. Typically, about forty percent of the audience keeps their hands up for that. It amazes me that shufflers seem to be in the minority, and when I ask people about it, their most common explanations hinge on things like wanting control, or being afraid a “wrong” song will come up, or just a conviction that it will be a jarring jumble. I always ask these people to take an hour on their next plane ride to shuffle the library, simply jumping to another song if they don’t like what comes up at a given time.

If you’ve seen Lamb’s interviews, you know that a prominent trait is an omnivorous, intense curiosity. So it makes sense to me that he savors the experience of having something unexpected connections arise fron his iPod, the better to ponder the links between songs, between ideas.

The person of the year is… the Queen! And Amanda Congdon! And some of you!

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

There are several ways to view the news that Queen Elizabeth is now podcasting. Some people say that this is the end … if HRM is jacking into the podosphere to distribute her message (too bad Helen Mirren wasn’t in on that one) the phenomenon definitely frickin’ over, and it’s time to find something new.

To me, it’s just another brick in the wall. One of the amazing things about podcasting has been the rapidity with which it has been embraced both by the grassroots folk and traditional communications outlets, ranging from big media to mighty institutions. I have my doubts on how many people actually wind up listening to lots of these podcasts–the unforgiving boundary of hours in day is a forbidding limitation, for one thing–but they really have changed the landscape. Someone must be listening, and I hope that some of them have caught a few of sessions I’ve done with some fine podcasters, video and audio on places like beet.tv, Macworld, Boing Boing, Your Mac Life, etc. As well as lots of radio and tv shows–like Tech Nation–that are podcast in addition to regular broadcast.)

Back to the Queen, though. By becoming a podcaster, and therefore supplying user-generated content, she is smack dab in the middle of the movement that has led Time Magazine (disclaimer: I work for a competing magazine) to name “You” as person of the year. But of course, she would have been POY even had she not deigned to podcast. (Would have loved to sit in on the conversation where her subjects explained this to her, but for all we know, her iPod experience might have made her a total geek by now.)

The broadness of the award has unearthed some mixed feelings among some of the movers and shakers in the blog/podcast/webdom-of-crowds world. On one hand, they are gratified for this major recognition, which they feel has been long in coming. (This is in contrast to lots of people in mainstream media, not to mention the Daily Show, who think that the choice is a total copout in a year of war and political upheaval.) On the other hand, they rightfully wonder why, since the stories accompanying the choice made it clear that the magazine was was really talking about the empowerment of people to speak on equal terms with the media through Internet sites like YouTube, they gave the honor to everybody who sticks his or her face in front of a cover of Time. Amanda Congdon, who may lay claim to the title of queen of the video blogosphere, has an amusing take on this.

The ubiquitous, New York Times-annoited Ms. Congdon, of course, can in no way be seen as grassroots. Powered by her terrific flair–a pulled-it-together postgrad Ellen Fliess–she’s risen from the hustings, in a trajectory that may become well-trodden in the YouTube era. This particular podcast, part of her “Starring Amanda Congdon” series, is sponsored by Dove. (As explained in a very elaborate postroll.) She’s also video blogging for ABC News. And most of this production, before she gets around to making her salient point, is used up by the most lazy, overused and, uh, pedestrian technique in all of of video journalism… the “person in the street” interview. As Pogo might say, we have met the enemy and he is us… er, you.

UPDATE:  By the way, the Queen’s presentation is officially dubbed, “The Royal Podcast.”  You can download it beginning at 1500 GMT on Christmas Day.  More info here.  It’s also on iTunes.

Non-Surprise: Zune Not Challenging iPod (yet)

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

Yesterday an article in the Wall Street Journal talked about the sales of the Zune. (Article not linked because it’s behind a pay wall.) Verdict? Not good. Despite all the hype, Zune slipped to the fifth biggest selling MP3. Of course iPod still dominates, selling more than the rest of MP3 players combined, in terms of dollars spent.

A couple of interesting points from the article. First, the Journal reporters indicated that the Apple Fairplay DRM lockout is having an effect on those eyeing Zunes but rejecting the idea because they have invested time and money in libraries that are tied to iTunes. IMHO, Apple should go interoperable and take this issue off the table. There’s plenty of reasons to stick to the iPod platform, but being locked into it by DRM and being stuck there against one’s will isn’t one that brings glory to Apple.

Also, this article had the first spotting of a Microsoft rep describing the Zune assault on iPod as “a ten year mission.” Not to blow my own horn (a phrase which always means, “I’m about to blow my own horn”), but in my very early analysis of the Zune–back in September–I talked about the long-term nature of the strategy, saying, “The time to gauge Zune’s success won’t at the end of this year but maybe as far out as 2011, when the iPod family turns 10 and the Zune platform is mature.” Now that Microsoft is acknowledging the time-frame I outlined, maybe we won’t focus so intently on Zune’s initial sales and see this competition as it really is–a marathon in which the very category will evolve as technology changes. As I said just before, Apple will do better if it continues focusing on improving the iPod and ditches the artificial crutch of DRM lockin.

A Universally Bad Idea

Sunday, December 10th, 2006

So Microsoft is paying the record label Universal a dollar for each Zune sold. (See the story here.) Doug Morris, the CEO of the Universal Music Group, justified it quite succinctly: “These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it,” he said. “So it’s time to get paid for it.”

The labels have been arguing for quite a while that they should be “paid for it”–specifically, trying to get Apple to pay them royalties on every iPod as reparations for all that stolen music that would be played on the devices. Even Sony’s Howard Stringer had argued for this. In September 2005, he said to me, “a hardware device is not worth anything without content, and. . . iPod has yet to demonstrate that it’s valuable to the content company. The terms of [the iTunes Music Store] deal make very little money for the content companies.” I thought it unusual for Sony, an electronics company that itself makes digital music players, to be making that argument. (Will Sony retroactively pay record labels a portion of all the profits from the Walkman?)

In any case, although Microsoft’s top Zune executive Robbie Bach, described the fee to me as a forward-thinking move in rethinking the issue of royalties, it’s hard to see the fee as anything but a short-sighted strategem that really makes no sense at all. (Unless you see it as establishing precedent that would to cause trouble for Apple, which has resisted the idea of those payments–a charge that Bach specifically denies.)

Let’s look at the bottom line. Microsoft pays Universal a dollar for each Zune sold. That’s chicken feed. Even if Apple had paid Universal a dollar for each iPod sold, that would only be $80 million. Which is less what Universal is making from royalties on iTunes songs. (Do the math: Apple has sold maybe 1.5 billion songs. Universal has a quarter of the market–that’s 375 million songs, with about 70 cents royalties on each–$262 million and rising fast.) Also, though the labels may argue that iPods are encouraging piracy, certainly there are millions of iPod users whose interest in music has increased dramatically because of the device, and are actually buying CDs to rip into their collection. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put energy into selling even more songs online–by making the experience better and more affordable?

Of course, Universal isn’t the only music label, and if MP3 makers pay all the labels–and what about the indies?– the devices will cost more. And consumers might well think, “Hey, if I’m paying a fee to the music labels on the assumption that I’m stealing music, doesn’t that make me entitled to steal music?” Actually, I doubt that this would really change behavior. But it would certainly erode the alleged high moral ground that labels claim when they argue that the “right thing to do” is not steal music. If those customers know that part of the money they spent to buy an iPod has already lined the pockets of the music labels, why shouldn’t they feel that they’re entitled to grab music wherever they find it?

What I find really amazing is the mindset of Morris when he describes iPods and other MP3 players as “repositories for stolen music.” I hope the quote is taken out of context–maybe he was saying that among other things, iPods often hold stolen music. Otherwise, it would seem that he is despises the medium that is, literally, the future of his industry. I’m sure that Doug Morris is aware that within a few years–whether it’s five or ten is of little import–virtually all music will be delivered digitally, and CDs will be as dead as cassette tapes. Though piracy is a huge challenge, there are also tremendous opportunities for revenue that will come from this change. Those opportunities deal with making direct connections to customers, tapping into communities centered on musical genres and fans, making live concerts and rarities available and other things that please customers. Not taxing MP3 players on the assumption that the buyers are thieves.

Silent Bob’s Chatty Playlist

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Kevin Smith the movie director also known as “Silent Bob” (after his verbally reticent character in “Clerks”) was supposed to do an iTunes celebrity playlist to promote “Clerks II” but was miffed when Apple asked him to trim some of the descriptions, deemed verbose for the format. Ever the uncompromising artist (he did direct “Dogma”) he refused to trim. Instead he posted his playlist on his blog. A director’s cut, and we didn’t have to wait for the DVD!

Playlists can be plenty treacherous, and I imagine it is worse when you are a celebrity. People judge you. You strain to include stuff that is cool but not so popular everyone has heard of it. And then you have to write a couple of lines about the song. Try to say something insightful about the song and you risk sounding like a wannabe rock critic. Include a personal anecdote and you sound like you’re so into yourself. (No wonder Apple told Smith’s rep that by and large most celebs don’t write enough, or don’t write anything!) Kevin Smith’s playlist is sort of predictable–he’s a Jersey guy who goes to great lengths to let you know he’s that he’s… a Jersey guy. A fierce Springsteen buff (he brags about the time he joined the Boss on stage) who even wears his Bon Jovi flag high. (Anyone who denies ever enjoying any Bon Jovi track is lying to you,” he says. Which isn’t quite the same as putting the band on your playlist.) Other likes include classic hip hop, Mr. James Brown, and tough chicks who make even a fat guy like him think they’ve got a shot at it. (I’m paraphrasing him here.) He also misspells Tom Waits. The most distinctive characteristic of his list is that includes a bunch of comedy cuts.

On the left side of the page you can click to my celebrity playlist. Since I’m not really a celebrity (definitely one of the least famous people in the bunch) but wrote a book about the number one celebrity on iTunes (the iPod, duh), I sidestepped the issue of my own favorites and selected a soundtrack to the book, including songs that figured into the history and culture of the iPod, as long as they were available on iTunes, an ironclad requirement. What’s more, apparently you must choose songs that are available by purchase by the track; my selection of “Push Push” by Herbie Mann was bounced. This is unfortunate, because as readers will learn in the “Personal” chapter (depending on which “shuffle” you have this is Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 8 or Chapter 5 ). this is the first song ever played on a real personal audio device and has a great story behind it.

Squirt Chasing

Monday, November 27th, 2006

In a recent Newsweek column I referred to the Zune’s ability to send songs from one device to another as “squirting.” I’d heard the term before and when Steve Ballmer used the term quite emphatically in an interview, it seemed logical for me to use it, and have some fun with it.

Now it seems that Microsoft might be backing away from the squirt. A posting in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog, and now an item in the paper, notes my use of the term, and wonders whether this is official or not. Microsoft tells them no and points to its advertising, which talks about how songs are “beamed” from Zune to Zune. I asked a spokeperson myself, and she replied, “There were a lot of terms tossed around internally but the one we landed on was wireless sharing (or wireless sending).”

How boring. Not that I like “beaming”–it had its heyday in the early PDA days (beaming addresses from Palm to Palm) and anyway, there are all those tired and geeky Star Trek associations to the word. Whereas squirting has a flair to it. OK, there’s an icky factor, too, but it coveys an iconoclasm that apparently Microsoft wants to cultivate. My guess is that’s why Ballmer proudly used the term. So why are the Zune language police trying to suppress it?

My Apple appearance, and this week’s Newsweek column

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

This week I wrote my Technologist column about how Microsoft might make better use of the Zune’s Wi-Fi capabilities. The idea of “squirting” songs from one Zune to another isn’t bad, but the DRM terms of this exchange Microsoft negotiated with the record labels is way too restrictive. (The songs expire after three days or three plays, whichever comes first. What’s more, the DRM gets laid over the squirted songs even if they are unprotected to begin with.)

My suggestion to make immediate use of Wi-Fi for music devices? To expose music collections, the way iTunes does on computers. (You can look at someone else’s iTunes library via local area networks or the short-range wireless Bonjour technology built into Macs. Of course people have the option of turning this feature off.) Just imagine sitting on a subway or a classroom and scanning the libraries of nearby iPods. The column talks about it in terms of Zune, which beat iPod to the wireless realm.

cupertino.jpg

This is an idea that popped into my head a few weeks ago when I was talking about my book, of all places, at Apple Computer. Usually when I go to the Apple campus in Cupertino, I’m listening to them–this time I faced the intimidating prospect that they would be listening to me. What’s more I would be speaking in the same auditorium where Steve Jobs introduced the iPod almost five years to the day before my lunchtime appearance.

The turnout was great, and the Apple people were a wonderful audience. The q and a was also fantastic. More to the point, when someone asked me what I would like to see on the iPod next, that’s when I discussed the “naked music collection” idea. No one acknowledged that anything like that might be in the works, but I felt that the idea didn’t take anybody by surprise.

Can you believe the stuff that’s out there on the friggin’ Web?

Saturday, November 18th, 2006

As I speak at bookstores, companies, colleges and street corners (the obvious, desperate next step to flog my book), I get asked some questions over and over. One of them is what’s the next thing coming, the thing that excites me. That leads me to rhapsodic descriptions of the myriad “discovery” sites on the Web, ranging from collaborative filtering efforts that let you find related stuff to the stuff you like (check out, in fact, iLike, which I should probably write about on its own in a future post); to social networking based sites like MOG that help you link to people who’s tastes are like yours (or who could guide you to even better stuff than you know); to music blogs by hard-core fans who have access to unbelievable hard to find stuff. I think that as these become hooked to bigger systems (maybe with reasonable fees so that artists could get paid for their work) we could eventually have a way to automatically get amazing music into our iPods and computer.

This morning, spending a few idle minutes on my computer–a process that often leads to idle hours–I stumbled (through a hookup froom the Philadelphia Inquirer blog, done by a very clever guy) upon a site called Locust Street, and in particular an MP3 of something I’ve never heard. Here’s the link. It appears to be an open mike capturing John Lennon, playing around with an idea that turned out to be “She Said She Said” from the Revolver album. At first he’s got just one line inspired, the story goes, by a Peter Fonda comment during an acid trip (though I don’t recall whether its Fonda or Lennon or both who was supposed to be on acid at the time). Then the melody that we all know so well seeps into it. Finally, after some unclear passage of time where it’s not clear that a space of hours or days have occured, we hear Lennon, solo at the guitar, strumming and singing a draft of the song that’s not far from the full-contact Beatle version. Somewhere in there, he’d figured out that the song works better by changing “He said” to “She said.” It’s an astonishing little window into creativity by a master. Not something that I’d put on the iPod in regular rotation, but a little flash of enlightenment, rendered close by the Web.

I’m iPod–fly me!

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

If you thought Apple would stay silent during Zune’s big day, think again. Check out the press relase that just moved from Apple:

Apple(R) today announced it is teaming up with Air France, Continental, Delta, Emirates, KLM and United to deliver the first seamless integration between iPod(R) and in-flight entertainment systems. These six airlines will begin offering their passengers iPod seat connections which power and charge their iPods during flight and allow the video content on their iPods to be viewed on the their seat back displays.

It’s a not terribly subtle reminder that criticial mass can yield all sorts of cool consequences, and that only one MP3 player has that critical mass. It will be a very neat perk to take a long flight, listen to music and watch video, and leave with your battery fully charged. What’s more, when this is implemented (press release says beginning mid-2007; that sounds pretty optimistic), it will make downloading movies on iTunes a lot more attractive to people who are about to take such flights. No battery worries about watching even two or three flicks on the iPod–and if you get to view it on the seat-screen, that’s even better!

The press release did not mention whether there will be an extra charge for this service. I’ll try to find out later today and update.

Zune goes for indie cred

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

Today is the formal launch of Zune, and I think Microsoft has done a great job of promoting it and getting the name out there. (The company’s wooing of bloggers has also been effective: Engadget is almost a house organ for Zune.) There are 45,900,000 Google hits for a search for Zune.

There hasn’t been much discussion of the songs that come preloaded into every Zune music player. But I find the list very telling. Unlike the sample music library that Apple sent reviewers with the first iPod, the Zune choices make no attempt to touch bases in different categories of music, but aim laser-like to cutting-edge independent emergening bands. (Another sign of the indie focus: one of the setup screens is a picture from the Coachella festival, the Nirvana of the movement that Nirvana [the band] helped trigger.)

Admission: the only band in the group I know is Band of Horses, a Seattle favorite that’s in the Neil Young style of grunge mode. (They’re good.) But I like the songs from Bitter:Sweet (hip-trop tropic stuff, reminds me of Brazilian Girls) and The Adored. Apparently the hard-core indie fan knows most of these groups, and may be impressed at the selection. Here’s a list–you’ll notice of the nine, three are from Sub Pop, the famous Seattle post-punk label. The takeway is that Microsoft is taking dead aim at a young, iconoclastic demographic that may feel that the iPod is too much an establishment tool, and wants a different music player that the one Dick Cheney listens to. It’s almost a (Karl) Rovian form of ju-jitsu marketing–positioning Microsoft as the cool alternative to Apple. I’ll end the post here, as my head is spinning.

Update: I see Engadget has put up a post on the non-elegance of Zune installation process. So maybe I was harsh in my characterizationl