Poetry in Motion?
By John Geirland, Mon Sep 17 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Interview with the "Godfather of the Internet music", Thomas Dolby Robertson.


For the record, musician and technologist Thomas Dolby Robertson (stage name "Thomas Dolby") does not refer to mobile entertainment as "poetry in motion." Nonetheless, the artist known for signature 80's songs like "She Blinded Me With Science" (1982) is determined to get inside your handheld device.

Known in some circles as the "Godfather of Internet music," Robertson's company, San Mateo, California-based Beatnik, signed on last February with Texas Instruments and chipmaker ARM to incorporate the company's Beatnik Audio Engine (BEA) in handheld devices.

Founded by Robertson in 1996, Beatnik has long supplied Web sites with sound effects for games. The company's MixMaker software allows Web users to create their own music remixes. Beatnik will build a stripped down version of the BEA to fit Texas Instrument's programmable OMAP architecture. Cambridge, England-based ARM will build Beatnik's software into their chipsets.

Recently, Beatnik joined with Nokia, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and music companies like Rolland and Yamaha to craft XMF, a new standard for audio packets on handheld devices.

Robertson's obsession with the convergence of music and technology began as a teenager in London. The son of a British archeologist, Robertson studied to be a meteorologist, but spent more time programming computers, building synthesizers and learning the guitar.

He worked as a sound engineer and performed in post-punk bands before writing and performing "synth-pop" songs like "Hyperactive" (1984). By the early 90's Robertson music career gave way to entrepreneurship. He started a company called Headspace to produce music-related software and technology, later reincorporating the company as Beatnik.

"I'm always stimulated and excited by the opportunities that technologies open up for music and the way music and art drive innovation in technology," Robertson says. "There's always been a reciprocal relationship between the two, going back centuries."

Long a fixture on the Internet conference circuit, Robertson's move into the wireless arena was probably inevitable. After all, his 1982 solo album was called "The Golden Age of Wireless."

TheFeature: Many believe music will be an important driver of mobile wireless services. What obstacles stand in the way?

Thomas Dolby: The biggest obstacle is the lack of imagination regarding the best use of the limited bandwidth, memory and CPU cycles available on handheld devices. Hype is also a danger. WAP was heavily hyped and experienced a backlash because the user experience wasn't very good. There are enough examples of popular and successful services - notably i-Mode and SMS - to demonstrate that a future exists for mobile wireless. SMS isn't even rich media but still accounts for 50% of the profits for many European operators.

TheFeature: What kinds of music-oriented services will be popular on handheld devices? So far, MP3 enabled phones have been a disappointment.

Thomas Dolby: I'm not too optimistic that people will be downloading complete songs in large numbers any time soon. Downloading MP3 files is expensive on the infrastructure side because of the high cost of bandwidth. It's also uneconomical for users to spend that much time downloading songs on a device that has limited battery life. Users of handheld devices have extremely short attention spans. They don't want to sit and wait 15 minutes for a file to download.

TheFeature: What is the appropriate model for music on handheld devices?

Thomas Dolby: The right way to use handheld devices in the next few years is as a kind of "smart remote control" for ones music - with the music residing elsewhere. As I'm waiting for a bus I flip through the six releases pushed to me from artists I've specified I like - or that match my buying patterns. I can see a graphic, hear a short audio clip, then check a box - "download" this complete song to my home computer, or "order" the CD from Amazon. I can also specify that the next time I dock my hybrid PDA device to my PC I want to get three of these six songs transferred into my device.

TheFeature: What are the prospects for Internet radio over handheld devices?

Thomas Dolby: The promise that Internet radio seemed to have when it appeared a few years ago has not been fulfilled. What set Internet radio apart from regular radio was the access to thousands of global stations and the ability to personalize and filter the radio content you really like. The problem is no business model exists for Internet radio, which is why high quality stations haven't been able to justify the investment. The streaming audio experience is not terrific, either.

TheFeature: What about personalization?

Thomas Dolby: I hoped a few years ago that I'd be able to custom-build my own radio station, using a combination of collaborative filtering, word-of-mouth, personal preferences and all these cool technologies. But the millennial copyright bill has limited the extent to which a user is allowed to personalize content over Internet radio.

TheFeature: It doesn't sound like you believe handheld devices will be used much for the actual consumption of music.

Thomas Dolby: If what you want is a transistor radio, you can get a damn decent one at Radio Shack for $25 - with no service fees. We had pocket TV's fifteen years ago and they never really took off. A much more compelling idea is seeing previews of this evening's TV programs and sending a message to your TiVo box to record the programs for when you get back home. This smart remote control concept is more economical given the bandwidth and data transfer costs that we're going to have for the next couple years. The behavior is more in sync with the way people use handheld devices in general.

TheFeature: Let's talk about the music distribution chain. How will mobile wireless operators react when content providers are able to deliver their own product to consumers?

Thomas Dolby: There's a bit of a war going on over where the control points are going to be for new businesses and supply chains that emerge over wireless networks. The operators are in a strong position. They are the ones with the billing relationship with the customers. However, consumer demand for data services, so far, has not been stunning. Rather than squabble at this early stage about who controls the distribution, the different players are beginning to understand that we first have to collaboratively fuel the market. We need to come up with a user experience compelling enough that there'll actually be demand from users. In the last couple of years I've seen people get slightly more pragmatic and less greedy about what they are prepared to discuss in terms of control of distribution.

TheFeature: Will operators become content providers themselves?

Thomas Dolby: The operators realize they have certain core competencies they shouldn't be stepping outside of. Not to say that the Vodaphones don't have content services divisions that are looking specifically in these areas. I think the giant operators realize that, fundamentally, they are not content providers and are going to have to partner with the music companies, film studios and TV production companies that have provided content in the past.

TheFeature: What about conflict between operators and manufacturers?

Thomas Dolby: Some hostility exists between operators and handset makers. Operators would love to provide users with all their services and bill them for it, as opposed to users getting services directly from a handset maker. While the operators have a unique billing relationship with consumers today, the growing popularity of electronic wallets means that your phone operator soon won't be the only one with whom you can have a billing relationship.

TheFeature: In a world of competing content and service providers, what can operators do to hang on to their customers?

Thomas Dolby: One way for the operators to reduce churn is to introduce more complex and personalized services. If you have a music locker at Vodaphone, then it's going to be hard to give that up for a better deal at Orange. The banks have been using this strategy for years, getting their hooks into you on lots of different levels so it's harder to switch over to another bank. You see the same thing on the Net. AOL disks rain from the heavens, but it's very, very hard to get off the service.

TheFeature: How do the major labels view mobile wireless?

Thomas Dolby: The major labels feel that we're still a few years away from realizing the medium's potential. Universal, being associated with a parent company like Vivendi, is in a good position to offer hybrid services, as is Sony. In my experience, these huge conglomerates often lack synergy. When you go from one division to the next it's almost like talking to different companies.



TheFeature: Will there be a role for user-created music in this new medium?

Thomas Dolby: I hope so. User-created content has been one of the godsends of the Web era, opening up the playing field to a wider range of music than just the top tier of the record labels. To date, user-created music hasn't made a huge impact on what's popular. We still have mega-stars, boy bands and pop chicks. For the next decade most of the top music content will continue to be controlled by a handful of major record labels. But these companies can't provide all the links in the distribution chain, so there'll be a competitive marketplace and the revenues will be carved up among the players who are necessary for that chain.

TheFeature: You believe some North American operators are out of touch with how consumers are actually using their services.

Thomas Dolby: A disconnect exists between the way North American operators are marketing mobile services and how those services are catching on at the street level. Motorola pagers, for example, were very hot in the hip-hop urban culture, but Motorola completely disowned that segment, which they saw as pimps and drug dealers. Motorola stuck its head in the sand and concentrated on the enterprise market. I think they missed a golden opportunity.

TheFeature: How does Beatnik fit into this picture?

Thomas Dolby: These days Beatnik is exclusively a technology licensor. Our most modern technology is geared specifically for handheld devices and enables a device to play very high quality music - as ringtones, previews, or sound underneath a game. We've built a very flexible audio engine - the Beatnik Audio Engine (BEA) - which we've licensed to a number of parties. The BEA is being adopted by a number of the incumbents in this space, such as Texas Instruments, Sun Microsystems, and others.

TheFeature: Hasn't the delay in deployment of 3G networks made companies involved in rich media over wireless networks, like Beatnik, more vulnerable?

Thomas Dolby: The delays haven't affected us a lot. The gating factor for Beatnik is the long product cycle for handsets. Although we've been engineering for handsets for close to two years, it'll probably be the middle of 2002 before Beatnik enabled devices are in the streets. Once those handsets do appear, they'll operate perfectly well with whatever bandwidth is available - even if 3G is further delayed. Obviously, there is proportionally more that you can do with more bandwidth, but we're not dependent on it.

TheFeature: A lot of people are trying to figure out what business and revenue models will work in this medium. What are your thoughts?

Thomas Dolby: I don't believe there is any one model that is going to work. It's very important that we don't give content away for free and let the cat out of the bag. We have to provide the top content in a user experience that is satisfying and at a fair price. If we're able to do that as an industry, it'll be popular with users and a revenue stream will result from that. How that revenue stream is carved up will eventually find its own level. The control points will move around.

TheFeature: You mention the success of i-Mode, but some feel that i-Mode is not exportable, that it fits the peculiar characteristics of Japanese culture and way of life.

Thomas Dolby: That's an excuse, really. The content i-Mode users are consuming is fairly quirky and unique to the Japanese, but we have our own content biases. Japan is a fairly small market. If those kinds of services were only a tenth as popular in the rest of the world as they are in Japan that would still be a huge market.

TheFeature: Why did mobile wireless services catch on first in places like Finland and Japan?

Thomas Dolby: It doesn't surprise me that Finland and Japan are ahead of North America. These are small, almost insular cultures where a good idea spreads very rapidly. The U.S.A. is a melting pot culturally and politically, and so diverse that your chance of having much in common with someone you bump into on the street is very slight. There isn't a shared cultural experience in the USA, like in Finland or Japan.

TheFeature: It's the year 2006. Describe an optimistic scenario for music on the mobile wireless platform.

Thomas Dolby: We'll have a playlist on our handsets that we're constantly adding to and taking away from, though the actual delivery and enjoyment of the music is probably through our car stereos.

TheFeature: What's the pessimistic view for 2006?

Thomas Dolby: We make the same mistake on mobile wireless that we made with the Web - giving away content. In the rush to gain market share the market evaporates because people become accustomed to getting everything for free.

TheFeature: Unexpected developments?

Thomas Dolby: Niche networks form, almost like CB radio, related to certain artists. Mobynet exists on a street level, where Moby is broadcasting live on cam in the studio, while Moby fans gather spontaneously in coffee bars and send him remixes. Niche networks would be rather like the pager culture that so frightened Motorola, using music the same way pagers used phone numbers and small text messages.

TheFeature: You have said: "what's really driving the penetration of new handset devices is the youth market." Why are you so certain that this demo will be pivotal to the growth of mobile wireless?

Thomas Dolby: Mobile phones are the vital accessory of this new millennium. For many young people the cell phone is something they hate to leave home without. The cell phone is their ticket to a social life and a link to their peers and environment. Music is one of the strongest shared interests among that demographic, along with fashion. It's a natural fit for your handheld device to be where you keep and manage your music. So it's inevitable that music fans adopt these devices and take their music to a level I haven't even begun to imagine.

Tune in for a series of mobile entertainment related stories appearing this week!

In July 1998, Thomas received a Lifetime Achievement in Internet Music award from Yahoo! Internet Life. An honor, to be sure - yet when it comes to fusing music and technology on the Web, Thomas believes that both he and the industry have much more to achieve.

John Geirland is co-author of "Digital Babylon," a book about the online entertainment business, and writes about mobile wireless developments from Los Angeles.