The Problem of Predicting Future Uses

the_old_container.jpgI was reading this interesting blog entry by Marc Andreessen about how startups should be flexible with the initial product plan, and he quoted a really cool article from Randall Stross’ book The Wizard of Menlo Park, about Thomas Edison and the early days of the creation of the Phonograph.

Anyway, the press had a hard time figuring out what the usage model of recorded material would be — here’s the sample from the book:

[A description of the phonograph in Scientific American in early November] set off a frenzy in America and Europe. The New York Sun was fascinated by the metaphysical implications of an invention that could play “echoes from dead voices”. The New York Times predicted [in an eerie foreshadowing of their bizarre coverage of the Internet in the mid-1990’s] that a large business would develop in “bottled sermons”, and wealthy connoisseurs would take price in keeping “a well-stocked oratorical cellar.”.Such was the authority of Scientific American’s imprimatur that all of this extraordinary attention was lavished not on the first working phonograph made for public inspection, but merely a description supplied by Edison’s assistant.

…By late November, Edison and his staff had caught onto the phonograph’s commercial potential as a gadget for entertainment… a list of possible uses for the phonograph was noted [by Edison and his staff], assembled apparently by free association: speaking toys (dogs, reptiles, humans), whistling toy train engines, music boxes, clocks and watches that announced the time. There was even an inkling of the future importance of personal music collections, here described as the machine for the whole family to enjoy, equipped with a thousand [music recordings], “giving endless amusement.

Pretty funny, or what. Anyway, the whole new world of all-digital content has in the same way shuffled the decks concerning music distributions. I would not be surprised if we all five years from now would scratch our heads about the idea of distributing music as MP3 files.

There are so many issues totally unresolved: how is really any commercial value tracked in digital bits that could be endlessly copied, even with DRM? How to find content easily as digital content could be massively distributed and even created? Do people really like to have hard disk content rather than an object they would like to look at, collect in a book shelf, and so on?

Sorry about all the rhetorical questions and no answers — I just tried to show that we all are still in the very, very early days of the digital music revolution.

I give you one prediction. People like to share music in forms of showing their personality and what they like, if possible even in a creative and personal way. So let’s make it very easy for non-DJs to put together mixes of the music they like just now and would like to share with their friend, software like this will appear, maybe even in the form of Web services. If the produced content had meta-info about the musical parts, key, bpm, and then we had tools who could read this info and provide easy ways to remix it — style Ableton Live but very user-friendly… That would also mean an attempt to make an open format (most likely XML format) that defined song structures, parts, keys, warp points, and so on.