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CENDI Meeting on Metadata and the future of the iPod

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

I was at the CENDI meeting to speak today about metadata and new developments related to metadata. There were several great presentations during the morning and some worthy of additional attention. My particular presentation is here.

The presenter prior to me was Dr. Carl Randall, Project Officer from the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC). Carl’s presentation was excellent. He spoke to the future of search and a research report that he wrote on Current Searching Methodology And Retrieval Issues: An Assessment. Carl ended hispresentation with a note about an article he’d just read entitled Why the iPod is Doomed written by Kevin Maney for portfolio.com.

The article was focused on why the Pod was doomed. The author posits that the technology of the iPod is outdated and will soon be replaced by online “cloud” computing services. To paraphrase from the article: The more entrenched a business is, the less likely it will be able to change when new competitors arise to challenge its existing model.

Another great quote from the article– “In tech years, they [i.e, the iPod and iTunes] are older than Henry Kissinger.”

I don’t quibble with the main tenant of the article; that services will move to the web and that we will think it quaint to have to purchase content and download individual songs, then carry around those songs on hard drives, which store those files locally. The iPod hardware and the iTunes model of by-the-drink downloads are both likely to have limited futures. I do think that Apple is probably better placed to transition their iTunes service to a subscription or cloud-based model than any others through their iPhones. The article dismisses this as unlikely because Apple hasn’t talked about it. This dismisses the fact that Apple never talks about their plans until theyare ready to announce a product of service.

As we move to an era of “cloud” computing, where both applications content are hosted on the network not on individual devices, it is likely that people will desire to purchase subscription access to all content on demand as opposed to the limited content that they specifically purchase.

A subscription model also provides new opportunity to expose users to new content. From my perspective, despite having over 10,000 songs in my iTunes library, I’ve been reluctant to purchase new content that I wasn’t already familiar with. I have used LastFM and other services (anyone remember FM radio) to become acquainted with new music. Part of the reason for this is that the barrier for me is time rather than cost, but I expect that the perceived cost issue is one for many potential users. I say “perceived” because, much research and practical experience shows us consumers will pay more for ongoing subscription services than they will for one-time up-front costs.

Moving content to the “cloud” provides many opportunities for content providers to exercise a measure of control that had been lost. By hosting files, rather than distributing them (streaming as distinct from downloading, for example) the content providers have greater ability to control distribution. Access becomes an issue ofauthentication and rights management, as opposed to DRM wrapping and other more onerous and intrusive approaches. Many of us have become quite comfortable with renting movies through Blockbuster, Netflix or cable OnDemand services.

There are downsides for the customers for moving to the cloud. There are very different rights associated with “renting” a thing (content, cars, houses, etc.) versus owning those things. How interested users will be in skipping those rights for the convenience of the cloud is an open question. Likely, the convenience will override the long-term interest in the rights. Frequently, it isn’t until someone realizes that they don’t have any control over the cloud is when they are burned by the owners of the services take them away in some fashion. If you’ve stored all of your photos on Flickr and the company deletes your account for whatever reason, you’ll wish that you had more control over the terms of service. From my perspective, I’d rather retain ownership and control the content I’ve purchased in those areas where I’m invested in preserving access or rights to reuse. I don’t know that the majority of users share my view on this; likely because they don’t spend much time thinking about the potential impacts.

This is something, in particular, libraries should be focused on having outsourced preservation of digital content to the publishers and organizations like Portico.

However, I do know that looking at these distribution models is a huge opportunity for suppliers of content in all forms. The risks of not acting or reacting are that a new upstart provider will displace the old. I grew up in Rochester, NY where Kodak was king in photography around the world for decades. Now Kodak is but a shadow of its former self, looking for a new business model in an era of digital imaging, not film and processing, which were its specialty.