Opinion » Cybernaut


Music is everything



Technology has the ability to do lots of things, from running the most intense business applications to playing the most diversionary games. But for whatever reason, it’s music that has been driving and defining the technology industry for the past decade.

First came the MP3 compression format, which is actually a short form for MPED1 Audio Layer 3. Once conventional hard drives broke through the Gigabyte ceiling, the demand for MP3s went through the roof as people began to digitize their music collections. MP3s, depending on quality, only take up a quarter to a tenth as much space as a full length song on a CD and the difference is virtually indistinguishable for most listeners.

Advances in high speed Internet, near the end of the 1990s, also made it possible to send songs through the Internet, giving rise to the Napster phenomenon. Alanis Morissette herself made about a million bucks when she sold her shares in MP3.com.

Although it lasted less than two years, before being shut down in 2001, Napster had a huge impact on music. Computer sales went up, and the demand for high speed Internet soared. At the same time companies scrambled to make portable MP3 players, which kicked portable CD players and minidisk players to the curb.

Shutting Napster down also had little impact on the amount of music being shared over the Internet. Napster’s demise gave rise to LimeWire, BearShare, Kazaa, Morpheus, BitTorrent, and other peer-to-peer services that are still around today.

And then came Apple with a solution for both the hardware and software issues of digital music. The first iPod model was released in 2001 with up to 10 GB of space on a miniature hard drive, far more capacity than other flash-based players. 10 GB can hold about 3,000 songs, and is still more capacity than you can get in any flash-based player.

In the past six years Apple has captured close to 90 per cent of the portable music market, pretty much rescuing the entire company in the process. The success of iPod has allowed Apple to reinvest in their computers and software, capturing market share, and to enter the telecommunications market this year with the iPhone.

Then there’s iTunes, which was originally released in 2001 as a digital media player and organizer that was similar to RealPlayer and WindowsMediaPlayer. However, it was more intuitive when it came to organizing music, and as the iPod has become the gold standard for players, so has iTunes become the gold standard for software. The launch of the iTunes store in 2003 was huge, proving for the first time that people were willing to pay for digital music at the right price. As of July of 2007, the store had sold three billions songs.

Music has become the standard for judging all portable technology. Every cell phone manufacturer sells a model with built-in music, and players have been integrated into phones, jewelry and even sunglasses.

Car manufacturers have also gotten into the game, with built-in USB docks to charge the players in some models, as well as built-in adapters to plug right into the stereo system.

The ability to store music has also prompted the rise in writeable CD sales as people make the modern equivalent of mixed tapes. It has also spurred the sale of external hard drives, as people acquire massive music libraries that encroach on their storage.

The appetite for music has also motivated the storage industry to improve flash memory capacity, essentially doubling it every year.

The success of digital music has also led to the digitization of other media, like television shows and games. It’s now possible to live without a television, providing you have a high speed connection, don’t mind waiting for downloads or watching on small screens, and know where to go to get your favourite programs.

That in turn has created more demand for Media PCs and bridge devices like the Slingbox ( www.slingmedia.com ) and Apple TV (www.apple.com).

Obviously music hasn’t been the only catalyst for every change in technology over the past eight years or so, but you can’t discount its impact either.

Before music, PCs were primarily work machines — word processors, spreadsheets, and calculators — that also came with minesweeper. Since the implementation of digital music they have become home entertainment devices that probably get more use than the stereos and televisions in most households.

Music also came first with every recent development in technology. Computers have always been limited by two things, the speed of information coming in, and by the amount of data they can store and process. By that standard it’s always been easier to digitize, store, and transfer music than other larger and more complex files. Music was also quicker to standardize formats than were other media types.

Here’s a short list of music sites worth visiting, and celebrating — www.pitchforkmedia.com , www.projectplaylist.com , www.cmj.com , www.futureofmusicbook.com , http://radio3.cbc.ca , www.podcast.net , www.podcast.com . .