Ramblings About the Future and Music

I’m sitting on my couch imagining what the future will be like in our world of information. When I was a kid, information was pretty much who you called when you wanted to know something. You picked up your phone and dialed, literally, “411”. A nice lady usually answered your call, “Information. How may I help you?” in a very nasally voice. Truth be told, I used the phone more to call my old friend Marci and talk about who-knows-what kids in second grade talk about; nevertheless, we spent plenty of time on that phone. Being a kid who loved music, I played it when I had the chance, but when I wanted a record of my own, I’d have to save my money and walk all the way to the big record store on 125th street (I really DID grow up in Harlem folks ;-)) that had a much better selection and better prices than the one in my neighborhood. Going to the movies was always an adventure because typically it was going to be either the theater on 103rd street in Spanish Harlem, that had a bit of a rat problem, or a friend and I would head to Times Square. Going to the library, something I didn’t do much of when I was younger, which will surprise a lot of my friends who know me to be one of the folks who made Jeff Bezos as rich as he is.

Times have changed.

When I want information now, it’s literally flying around all around me. All I need is the know-how to get it. At my very finger tips is access to more information than I’ll ever be able to digest in my entire life. I just used Wikipedia to create a link to Amazon.com found Jeff Bezos above. Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. It’s available in a growing number of languages. I could’ve used Google, Yahoo!, Ask.com (formally Ask Jeeves), Dogpile, and a growing list of others. If I want to talk to my old friend Marci (I’m happy to say we’re still friends after more than 30 years), I can grab either my cordless Siemens home phone or my Nokia E70 mobile and dial away. Because of the leaps in telecommunications made by both the U.S. and Sweden, telephone rates are quite affordable. Calling her using my home phone costs me about five cents a minute. But my options don’t end there. I could simply grab my headsets and use my Skype account which costs me two cents a minute (at today’s exchange rate). If we both have Skype accounts, there’s no charge. Of course, assuming she has an SMS-capable provider in the U.S. (we’re finally starting to come along. Sweden’s only been doing it for ABOUT TEN YEARS!!!!… sorry about that. I get a little sensitive about how far behind the U.S. is in the world of mobile technology. To my U.S. readers, let’s just say we’ve got a ways to go compared to Scandinavia), then I could simply send her an SMS message asking when she’s available for a Skype phone call. If I want to really get fancy, I could access the Internet through my wireless network at home with my Nokia E70, go to WhitePages.com, look up Marci’s mobile number (assuming it’s listed), and send her an SMS asking for a Skype phone call. But that would simply be me acting like an über-geek. 🙂 My youngest daughter checks her class schedule and grades online. I have a separate account as the parent to check her grades as well (I am SO glad my parents didn’t have this option when I was a kid!). Before she heads out the door to catch the subway to school, she goes to the SL (Stockholm’s subway system) web site to check when the next train leaves. Da Minx and I do the same thing. And if we just happen to forgot our subway passes, we can grab our mobile phones and send an SMS to number 72150 which purchases a ticket (with a time stamp) from SL for the trip.

All that said, I can’t help but wonder what’s ahead. What lies ahead for us all in the IT world? I’m not alone in my wondering. I believe Steve Jobs is wondering as well. His “Thoughts On Music” article has caused quite a stir, and rightfully so. Say what you want about his reasoning, but any honest person has to see that it took quite a bit of chutspa to say anything at all. Why? Because he really didn’t have to. Apple sold 2 billion songs, despite DRM restrictions, at 99 cents a piece. That’s roughly 2 billion dollars. Now he’s speaking out against it. Some would argue he’s made his money and now he can run, but that would simply clash with the earlier criticism of him not saying anything because he wanted to make money, and most of us know that the successful business types aren’t known for suddenly not wanting to make money. As has been stated by more than a few in the know, DRM is quite anti-consumer. Who really wants to buy a song online they can’t play in another music player? We surely wouldn’t stand for CDs we could play in our cars but not our home systems. I can tell you, if I didn’t have the option to make DRM CDs in iTunes, I would not be an iPod owner today. And that’s pretty much the problem with DRM. Why even bother? Yes, I understand songs are digitized and shared at a rate that’s hurting record labels. But you know what? That genie’s been out of the bottle for some time. I don’t care what anyone says, there’s not putting it back in. I myself know enough people with the skills and talent to crack just about anything the Big Four record labels can throw at them DRM wise, and that’s in Sweden alone. Now multiply that globally, add in the sharing of learned hacking skills, combined with free computer science courses on line from prestigious universities such as MIT and you start to understand where I’m at. Combine that know-how with the processing power available on store shelves today. I’m typing on a laptop with 2.16Ghz x 2. That’s WAAAAY more than what we used to send astronauts to the moon.

It’s time folks face the music. People like Steve Jobs got where he is being an innovator. That means he has the gift of seeing things in sharper focus than most. I think this case is no different. I’m willing to bet EMI is thinking the same thing. I see a future with DRM-less music, and I see it soon. My guess is the most successful company of the Big Four will be the one that kills DRM, and undercuts iTunes in price. A price war is something that will benefit the consumer and force the labels to come up with 21st century business models. It won’t be pretty. It will more than likely cost jobs, but if they move quickly they can score big early and retrain (read: invest in) their people in skills that will help them and the label recover and compete again. I have no magical business model to propose (and if I did I probably wouldn’t do it right here ;)), but there are lots of folks out there much smarter than I am. However, I am smart enough to know when it’s time to adjust. When will the Big Four know?

Now that I think about it, Skype’s causing quite the paradigm shift as well. Hmm…

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