Music Going From Wireless to discs and Around Again
By Eric Lin, Fri Mar 12 00:00:00 GMT 2004

The music industry as we know it today started in wireless, now trendsetters show it the technology is ready to move music into the new wireless- wireless data.

Many of attempts at wireless entries into digital music have been nothing more adding wireless to a digital music player, which have typically not enhanced but restricted the devices. Needless to say there have not been particularly successful. But what if instead of selling users new players and services, you took the ones they already had and developed wireless music distribution for them.

Portable music players don't have wireless built in, but many companies are now betting on a different kind of portable- laptops with Wi-Fi. South by Southwest (SXSW), the independent music festival taking place in Austin, Texas next week will use off the shelf technology and software to try something new in wireless music. SXSW is known as a place for pioneers in the music industry, so while the technology they're about to use is increasing popular on college campuses, Norman Richards points us to the first industry-sponsored implementation we've heard of.

Apple's iTunes allows Mac and PC users to play music off each others' computers when they are on the same W-Fi network. It uses zero configuration "Rendezvous" networking to set up a connection between all the available machines running iTunes. A number of Wi-Fi cafes and other locations in Austin will have a shared playlist with over 500 songs available to anyone with a laptop and iTunes during the festival. Wi-Fi's high speed is more appropriate for wireless music than any cellular protocols, and iTunes' simple interface provides an easy (free!) front end that users are accustomed to. since iTunes streams, not copies the music to the listener's computer, it also keeps the industry-types and artists happy since there's no chance of "stealing" the music.

Starbucks has experimented with music over Wi-Fi recently as well. Users on who log in on their T-Mobile hotspot network can stream (and of course, buy) selected songs and NPR stories from the portal users are redirected to when they log on to the network. Now Wi-Fi Networking News discovers in Business Week that Starbucks is about to take a step backwards to physical bits, with the intention of breaking into wireless music down the road. They will begin offering customers the chance to mix a custom CD from over 250,000 tracks, using a system built from HP components such as a Tablet PC, CD burner and label printer. But the article also mentions that Starbucks plans to add downloads for laptops and music players to the system.

Wi-Fi Net News picks apart the business model, but we're also interested in the interface. I agree the pricing model is questionable, and I too think CDs are a step back, especially when big record companies now have to offer more than just music with a CD in order for it to sell well. Ignoring those two factors, why would Starbucks choose to use what's being reported as a single Tablet PC per store as the front-end when they could use a web interface and allow users to stream the samples and create their mixes right from their own laptops? It would allow more customers to access the system (even simultaneously) as well as creating a more personal experience. Maybe they'll take some pointers from what we see in Austin next week.