SpiralFrog and the Gyres of History

By Tom Peters | Despite or because of its runaway success, the iPod/iTunes service from Apple has more than a few critics and enemies. Some musicians and music companies don't like the strategy of ninety-nine-cent pricing. It smacks of the cheesy dollar-store marketing mindset. I agree with the heat-wave gripes about Apple that Karen Schneider posted to this blog in July, and I can add a few more rants of my own.

Herman MelvilleFirst, what's up with all this whiteness? Although Apple has since offered devices in black and a few colors, most people associate the iPod with whiteness. I think Apple planned it that way. Where's the Melville who can plumb and limn the whiteness of the iPod as the current great white whale of our digital lives?

Second, I must confess with chagrin that the iPod device made a fool of me. Sometime in the last five years, I boldly predicted that no technological device would ever again dominate a device sector in the same way that the black rotary phone once dominated the telephone-handset sector in the mid-twentieth century. I thought the historical development of user needs and expectations had led to the dawn of a never-ending era of niche markets for each device type in a given sector, such as PDAs, cell phones, and MP3 players.

But the iPod device quickly gave the black rotary phone a run for its money. At one point, I think, the iPod had ninety-five-percent market share of the portable MP3 player market, though the percentage has since slipped as the competition has tried to answer the call.

Even the iTunes content site has been feeling a bit of heat from the competition. In May Napster re-launched, offering five, free online listens of the millions of tunes in its master collection, plus options to subscribe to the service and get download privileges, or to purchase songs individually or via album form.

Late last month, the press was reporting that this December the startup company SpiralFrog plans to "jump" (I had to do that) into the digital-music fray. SpiralFrog may be small and untested, but the startup has a big partner behind it—Universal Music Group, the largest music company in the world.

SpiralFrog is betting the farm that ad-based revenues will be sufficient to compete with ninety-nine cents per tune and subscription-based services. SpiralFrog describes itself as a "digital entertainment destination," which seems to indicate the company has larger aspirations than digital-music downloads. Froggy may be courtin' media moguls as we speak.

Gyre Thus the gyres of digital musical history have been set up for what may develop into a perfect competitive storm. Soon audiophiles will be able to buy individual tunes, entire albums, subscribe to millions of songs, listen for free online, and listen for free with downloading capabilities while suffering an onslaught of ads.

Some librarians argue that although the hacks, hops, and false starts experienced by the digital-music industry may be interesting in their own rights, they have little or nothing to do with the core content, service, and functional areas of most libraries. Scholarly e-books, popular audiobooks, and e-resources of all types are significantly different from digital music in how and why they are created; how they are marketed, packaged, sold, and leased; and how they are used by end-users.

Nevertheless, I can think of several reasons why librarians should pay attention to what iTunes, Napster, SpiralFrog, Rhapsody, and other online digital-music outlets are doing.

For starters, SpiralFrog will use the WMA audio-file format developed by Microsoft, which will not play on the iPod product line. WMA reportedly has strong DRM [digital rights management], but there have been reports recently that it too has been hacked. WMA also is the file format used by OverDrive and NetLibrary for their downloadable digital-audiobook services, the two major services of this type for libraries. This may be a self-serving reason to root for SpiralFrog. If SpiralFrog is successful, maybe Apple will cave in and allow WMA files to be played on their devices.

Secondly, the downloadable digital-music field provides another interesting proving ground for several competing business models and phenomena, including the potential for rising user intolerance for ads. Ads are a valuable business tool only as long as enough people pay attention to them and go out and purchase things as a result of seeing (or hearing) those ads. If, collectively, we become sated with ads and refuse to buy what's being advertised, the "free access to content with an ad kicker" business model will be put in a jar of formaldehyde for future generations to study as an historical oddity.
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