Charles Haddad's freewheelin' over at BusinessWeek again, this time asking the question, "What would you get if you crossed a BlackBerry with an iPod?" The answer, he claims, is "the future of the music business": a player that downloads music wirelessly over the airwaves and plays it with "no way it could be stored." (We've heard of this, we think! It's called a "radio." The difference is, you can buy a radio with something called a "tape deck.")
Nah, just joshin'. Haddad is, of course, talking about being able to play any song you like on demand and not having to deal with lame and repetitive playlists, dorky DJs, and incessant commercials for beer and Jet Skis; pretty much the same thing as picking any song out of your iPod's 10,000-tune library, except that you wouldn't be bound by storage limitations, because you'd just be wirelessly streaming songs from some massive central server somewhere. Since you could always play any song you wanted, there's no need for local storage, and with no local storage, there's virtually no way to pirate the music. Sounds great, right?
Unfortunately, there are some slight technical hitches with Haddad's vision. Here's our answer to his riddle about what you get after crossing a BlackBerry with an iPod: you get a digital music player that can play any song you like-- right after a five-minute wait as the song buffers, of course. That's assuming you aren't in an elevator or the basement of a large office building, or traveling somewhere without decent wireless coverage. Oh, and you wouldn't be allowed to listen to it during air travel, either. Sounds like a freakin' dream.
Sure, technology keeps advancing, but as far as we know, right now sustained transfer rates necessary to play a 128 kbps AAC file just don't exist with BlackBerry-style wireless service. The best average transfer rate found at TreoCentral was 82 kbps with Sprint PCS, so you're talking about waiting while songs buffer and then getting stutters if the transfer rate dips for whatever reason. (802.11 has more than enough bandwidth, but coverage issues make it impractical for this purpose.) And even when mobile networks have enough bandwidth to allow thousands of customers to stream 128 kbps songs simultaneously, that still doesn't fix the fact that you won't be able to listen to any music on that cross-country flight.
In short, what Haddad is proposing is the iPodian equivalent of the Network Computer, and we all know how well those caught on. It wasn't just the bandwidth issues; plenty of people have broadband, now, and plenty of businesses have gigabit Ethernet, and yet you still don't see fleets of cheap, diskless NCs out there for a couple of reasons. The first is the fundamental problem with the Network Computer: if you have no network, you have no computer. Networks fail all the time, and therefore so would NCs. The second is that people like local control; they don't want to rent their applications and run them off of some remote server and store their files offsite. And as Apple has shown by the iTunes Music Store's success over all those subscription-based services, the principle applies even more strongly when it comes to the purchase of music.
Fix the technical problems, and we still think the PodBerry would fail; Haddad, however, claims that "it's an ill-kept secret that Apple is trying to figure out how to add wireless Internet connectivity to the iPod," and even goes so far as to insist that Apple's new Bluetooth mouse and keyboard are "dry runs" for a PodBerry. (Um... oooookay...) Then again, this is coming from a guy who insists that streaming commercial-free music's "record of success" is those audio channels available to digital cable TV subscribers; what he fails to mention is that nobody has actually listened to one of those channels since some guy in Duluth tuned to "Sounds of the Seasons" for ten seconds when he accidentally sat on his remote control in February of 2001.
The bottom line is that Apple understands that people want to own their music, and we don't see that changing anytime soon. Thank Jobs for that.