Surely, by now, you've heard the expression "killer app."
Ordinarily it's used with a
positive connotation, referring to an application or function that drives a larger market. Like
spreadsheets and word processors were the 'killer apps' that drove the sale of PCs in the
80s; like desktop publishing and Photoshop were the 'killer apps' that
drove sales of the Mac in the 90s and 00s. Like… well, "apps" in general are the 'killer apps' that drive iPhone sales.
But there's a "killer app" lurking in our mobile devices that could bring down the platform it's supposed to live on — the symbiont service that threatens to kill its host. And it's precisely what this site is dedicated to, the arrival of "the Celestial Jukebox."
To whit: The spreading popularity of "cloud-based" music storage and delivery services like Pandora, Slacker, Last.fm, Spotify, Rhapsody, etc. threatens to bring the essential delivery system those services and devices rely on — wireless broadband — to its knees in the foreseeable future.
Are you one of the rapidly expanding legions of people that use Pandora ?
If so, then consider this article in the Sunday NYTimes Magazines. It's a great inside look at how Pandora really works, how it manages to deliver songs that are consistent with the song or artist you have chosen to launch a "channel." Called "the music genome project," it's a fascinating — if costly, labor intensive, and time consuming — effort.
But you might hear alarm bells ringing when you read this:
…thanks in part to the popularity of the Pandora iPhone app, its fortunes have lately improved. It has attracted 35 million listeners and claims about 65,000 new sign-ups a day (more than half from mobile-device users). About 75 companies are working Pandora into a variety of gizmos and gadgets and Web platforms.
That statement demonstrates the rapidly expanding potential for music delivered from "the cloud." But "65,000 new sign-ups a day" accounts for a LOT of wireless bandwidth. And those 75 companies, they are all creating services and devices that will offer Pandora to still more customers, all them demanding still more bandwidth.
Which brings us to the dark lining in the silver cloud, the hard rain that could one day fall. If these services keep expanding — if people become comfortable with "access" to over "ownership" of their digital libraries — we are going to need a LOT more bandwidth. And probably a lot more after that. Indeed, the potential for utilizing broadband channels for music delivery grows exponentially now that mobile devices like iPhone are being used for just that purpose.
The potential severity of the issue — and the concurrent potential for all kinds of conflicts of interest — was highlighted in a recent blog post in the Wall Street Journal online that predicts "The Coming Mobile Meltdown," by Holman W. Jenkins Jr.:
Consider: A single YouTube viewing consumes nearly 100 times as much
cellular bandwidth as a voice call. In Asia, some 200 million people
already watch video on their smartphones. No wonder Google (whose
YouTube unit serves up one billion videos a day) is an investor in a
new undersea fiber line connecting North America to the Far East.
More omens: Data collector AdMob reports that mobile Web page
requests grew 9% from July to August—a 180% annual growth rate. And
Motorola recently went public with worries that a handful of mobile
Slingbox users (a video streaming device) could wipe out cell service
in a whole neighborhood.
This is a mobile meltdown in the making. (italics added)
Of course, this being the Wall Street journal, the article then goes on
to use the prospect of restricted bandwidth as a justification for the big corporations that provide that bandwidth being liberated from the shackles
of the "net neutrality" controversy. That's the sort of "socialist" canard with which the WSJ
(which, you'll recall, is now a sister company of Fox News, aka "Fixed
Noise") loves to take issue. But that may be beside the point.
Jenkins identifies an even larger issue lurking behind the "net neutrality" issue:
…we persist in suspecting that the biggest political scrum
in the near future won't be over classic net neutrality at all—it will
be a battle over usage-based pricing, which is one of the few ways to
keep excessive demand in check (though key help will also come from
technologies that opportunistically dump wireless traffic back into the
Boy, there's a super-sized can of worms.
Right now, I enjoy more or less 'net neutral' unlimited bandwidth use on both my laptop and mobile devices. I can suck as much data off the Internet as I want on either platform. I can listen to music all day provided by any one of a number of services.
Jenkins foresees the time when all this bandwidth demand will run up against limits; when that happens, the 'net neutrality' debate will be forced aside, and the ISPs will argue that they need to start charging heavy users (like me) for my torrential bit-flow in order to pay for the infrastructure that needs to be put in place to keep all those gigabits flowing.
Well, that's fine, I guess. I don't really have a position one way or the other on Net neutrality and the revenue is going to have to come from somewhere to pay for all those cell towers.
But it occurs to me that there is another issue that just got lost in that shifting debate: the fact that, by charging for "usage," the ISPs will, in effect, be charging for content. If I listen to a lot of music over my "Celestial Jukebox" rig, and I am charged for that usage, am I not in effect being indirectly charged for the use of that content?
In that scenario, shouldn't some of the revenue also go to the content providers who are the reason for the bandwidth use that would justify higher charges?
I am increasingly perplexed by the implications that virtually free (a dime-a-track comes pretty damn close, compared to $15 for a CD…) hold for the creators of all this nifty content that's pouring through my MacBook and iPhone these days. I mean, when it gets to the point that recorded music has zero value — because it's all in the cloud, all the time, and accessible from anywhere — then how in the hell are my musician friends going to make a living?
So Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. proposes that ISPs be freed to start charging for bandwidth usage. Great. But I wonder how Mr. Holman and his bosses at the W$J will feel about ISP revenue being shared with the millions of artists who create the content that creates the demand for new bandwidth — seeing as how so many of them are crunchy-granola eating, left-leaning, right-brained subversives?
Point is, if there is no provision made for the creators, there won't be any content, so there won't be any need for any more bandwidth, at which point we can go back to worrying about "net neutrality."