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2001: Waiting for The Dough

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 1/4/02 issue of R&R This was the year that computers were to be talking to us. HAL was to be a reality. And in many ways, the concept of a talking computer and our lukewarm approach to it and other available technology was the story of this year.

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If you've got a computer that's any less than 5 years old, you can set it up easily to talk to you and to allow you to talk to it to command it to do your bidding. The voices you hear aren't as mellifluous as HAL's was in "2001: A Space Oddysey," but they are clear and concise. Likewise, products like Dragon's Naturally Speaking and IBM's ViaVoice will turn your keyboard laden machine into a voice driven wonder, ready to do your bidding: opening files, traversing the Net, playing, stopping, rewinding and fast forwarding your MP3 files, even dictating your words for that weekly column you write. It's all reality, and it's here now.

Is it cool? Yes. But is it as widespread as we'd thought it would be? No. It's all about the human factor: the way we humans use our technology can make or break its success in ways the designers and programmers never dreamed possible.

In the case of voice-to-text, voice command and voice navigation, we are a society of polite, cubicle-infested companies who don't want to speak out loud our every whim. Sure, lawyers and doctors are used to dictating to their secretaries memos and briefs and medical notes, but the rest of us aren't all that comfortable saying, out loud, that which we normally type. The general noise level makes an office an uncomfortable enough environment where additional hubbub from the dude next to you commanding his browser to zoom in on that Britney Spears image would drive you crazy. So, out of social embarrassment, we gravitate away from that technology, and return to our keyboards, grumbling and wishing that we could touchtype faster.

So goes the world of digital music. We've been presented with lots of technology over the past year that people didn't really care all that much about, despite the hype from the marketers and the manufacturers and programmers. When we, the public, reject something, those suppliers are quick to blame the Internet or the dot-com bust or anything but the simple phrase, "people didn't like it" as their reason for failure. And as we'll shortly discover, this year was another year of "revolutionary products" that barely registered a whimper, or never even saw the light of day.

ONLINE MUSIC SERVICES

Barely squeaking in under the end-of-the-year wire are the two online services, created by the major labels to take the place of Napster and its offspring and do things legally. MusicNet and PressPlay (which probably will not have launched by the time you read this, but have promised launch any day now) are, so far, two examples of technology in search of an audience. MusicNet may or may not give you the music you want - their full library was not available at launch. The first experiences with these services are going to be very important to consumer acceptance: if they don't approximate the Old Napster experience (as opposed to the New Napster experience, which completely disappoints anyone expecting the Old Napster experience), they cannot expect the public to give them any significant amount of mindshare or wallet share.

In addition, they are trying to sneak under the radar and try to get people to swallow the rental of music rather than the ownership of music. Hey, it worked for video, right? But there's a big difference: with a movie, you invest a couple of hours of your time, to the exclusion of all other activity. That's a perfect rental situation, because the number of movies that people haven't seen, but that they wish they've seen, is always high. But with music, you're talking about a similar universe of releases weekly (3 to 5 or so make it into theaters, and 3 to 5 new songs make it into your playlists, as if anyone really notices), but much less time invested in hearing them, even repeatedly. The collectibility of music is high, and the concept of rental of music will be a tough pill to swallow.

Add to that the inability to burn everything one might want onto CD to preserve your collection of online music, and you've got significant speed bumps to acceptance. Sure, the services have announced burning capabilities, but not for everything. Plus, the libraries are limited. It's decidedly not the Napster experience.

My fear is that when these services fail (and they will if they don't evolve into the killer app that e-mail is and that Napster threatened to become), they will not blame the real culprits, but blame the Net itself as a place no one can really make money.

SELF DIRECTED ENTERTAINMENT

Another technology that was supposed to be the future but still is looking for an audience is highly targeted advertising. We were told that this year, companies would be delivering personalized, tightly targeted ads to individuals rather than the mass market, in streaming audio and video, and would blow apart the traditional notions of gathering an audience and showering them with a unique selling proposition: a single woman in San Francisco would get a completely different ad than a retiree in Florida at exactly the same time in the program they were both listening to. No one ever explained to me why they might both be listening to the same show, but no matter: the sheer lack of numbers prevented any sort of audience, targeted or not, from materializing.

In addition, sites that offered control of entertainment to the user also had no traction. We looked this past year at sites that let you choose the outcome of the story you were watching, choose the perpetrator in a murder mystery, or choose the music you'd be playing. Aside from skirting closely to some of the legal issues around knowing what's ahead in an online playlist, people just didn't want to spend that much effort - they wanted, and continue to want a trusted source to pick and present their entertainment to them - edited and vetted so that they get only the best.

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

2001 was also the year that saw DigiScents try desperately to get you to sniff your way through the Web, a company market flexible, thin CDs that, although *way* cool, have yet to find any practical or widespread use, and lots of companies sliding CD cloaking software over retail CDs, only to have crackers break their software almost immediately.

Maybe this year will be the year that we see some of the software, hardware and business launches that were promised for 2001: Sirius is looking good, finally, for a Valentine's Day launch; pressplay just might get off the ground in the next month or so, and Cox, Comcast, Rogers and other cable companies should have their own broadband networks built out to complete the severing of ties with @Home.

But there are still products that have been promised over and over and over again, by companies as large as Microsoft and Dell (which was recently find nearly a million dollars from promising to ship a piece of software back in 1995 and never quite getting around to it) trying to scare off competition to the smallest companies with the best intentions, never to see the light of day. From games to centralized entertainment centers to combo car radios that combine CD, MP3 and all bands of radio (including satellite), users are left wondering over and over and over if technology promised is ever going to find its way into their hands; further, they are rightfully wary of that technology having a half life longer than a year.

Maybe, just maybe, our experiences over the last few years have taught us to be a bit more careful about becoming so nuts over stuff that's simply cool as opposed to cool and also useful. Maybe we've learned not to rely on a website, or a method of access or a piece of software without a backup or alternative. It's sad that we've become a bit cynical about the Net and its potential, but we've all come to the conclusion that the Net is not going to be all things to all people. And we certainly cannot count on making money just because the Web is involved.

Here's to a great year to come in 2002.



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