The Future Personal Music Cloud

While many can easily see the need in the future for a Personal Video Cloud, there is a lot more uncertainty about a personal cloud for music. There seem to be three schools of thought for everything and this applies to the Personal Music Cloud, too. In this blog I will be talking about these different points of view, some which incorporate a personal cloud, some that don’t.

The Case For: “All Cloud”
The “all music in the cloud” camp believes that all music will be located inside the cloud and served from the cloud. Users will always be connected to the music cloud and can stream music to their smartphones, personal tablets, car electronics and computers, and do it on-demand. Very little if any of the music is actually stored on the device itself, maybe some cache to deal with on-line latencies. The best way to describe the user model is in terms of Pandora Radio and Slacker Personal Radio. Imagine a Pandora or Slacker that streamed the exact songs you have bought, and on-demand. Another method could be an “all you can eat” plan like a Zune Pass where you pay a subscription fee instead of buying the music.

To make any of these methods work, the playback devices need reliable, consistent and pervasive wireless or wired connectivity. The most probable “transport” would be over an “old” (remember, we are talking about the future here) 3G/4G wireless network given it reaches the home (PC/tablet/PMP), car (smartphone/PMP), work (PC) and outside (smartphone/PMP). And that reliable pervasive connectivity could be the largest challenge. Anyone familiar with dropped calls or the “can you hear me know” commercials understand this challenge. Another challenge could be with users like me who have been buying music for almost 30 years. What do you expect me to do with that old Led Zeppelin album I bought 25 years ago? Buy it again? I already bought on record, 8 track, cassette, and CD. Buying it again is a “Whole Lotta Pain”.
Another challenge is device compatibility with content protection schemes. Today is a nightmare in that DRM’d content you buy from one store won’t play on a non-supported device. A good example today is Apple. Just try to play that DRM’d song you bought from the Apple iTunes Store on any other non-Apple digital music player. You can’t.

The final challenge is risk of the service going out of business. It’s one thing to be the world’s largest bank and be described by your government as “too big to fail”. What if your music service goes out of business? Odds are your music will go with it and the government won’t bail them out. It can also happen with a large company who decides to stop doing something. Anyone remember the Wal-Mart and music DRM story?

The Case For: “All Local”
This camp advocates that in the future, all paid music will be purchased, stored, and played back locally. Users will buy and download music electronically and load and play it back onto their devices. They will be free to play on anyone’s device because the music isn’t DRM encrypted. This is similar to the way users who buy their music from Amazon operate.

Also in this scenario, every playback device will have enough storage to fit the entire library. This eliminates the need for size-only driven playlists that many of today’s iPod nano consumers need to create.

The challenges in this case are almost as big as the “all cloud” scenario. First, this really goes against what the labels want, which is rock-solid DRM’d music. They may be somewhat happy with selling $.99 singles, but they’d be a whole lot happier with locked down music at $.99. Another challenge is synchronization. For real end user delight, all the household devices including phones, PMPs, car stereo, living room set-top box, PCs, watches and tablets would need some easy way of simple synchronization.

The final challenge is storage although it appears like a temporary one if music density stays constant and storage keeps evolving. How do you fit that 100GB music library on that 16GB iWatch or XWatch? (Fictional future products of course.) Well, you don’t. Of course the user can make a size-limited playlist, which for most without the time or patience is complete drudgery. Another way to solve this is through a personal music cloud located in the home. The personal music cloud would stream music from your home PC or STB to any client device inside or outside your home. It does this in a similar fashion as the personal video cloud I described a few weeks back. Personal audio cloud solutions exist in rough forms today and in an upcoming blog I will explore a few of those solutions I used on the iPad and the HTC EVO 4G. Some products I have looked at are JukeflyOrb NetworksSubsonic, and musikCube.

The Case For: “Hybrid Big Cloud/Local”
Although some might see a hybrid cloud/local solution as a “playing both sides” option, in technology circles things never happen overnight and are rarely black and white. Political candidates win or lose as do soccer teams but mainframes didn’t die when PCs were launched. When the iPhone launched, consumers didn’t immediately stop buying BlackBerrys, Palms, or Nokias.

The “hybrid cloud/local” music advocates see music on a gradual transition to the cloud but respect that neither the infrastructure, people’s preferences, nor consumers’ giant local music libraries will change anytime soon. In this model, users have local AND cloud music with one interface and possibly a few companies to buy music from. DRM is transportable across multiple vendor’s hardware using something like DECE, an emerging group that is working on a lot of things including creating a transportable DRM scheme.

In the end, users don’t care where their music comes from, only that they can play what they paid for anytime, anywhere. Whether it’s on a personal cloud located in the home or on a server in the sky, the user doesn’t care.

One major challenge in the hybrid model is synchronization as in the first model where content is strewn on home computers, devices and in the cloud. What is needed is one method to manage all the complexity between the big cloud, personal cloud, and multiple devices. It would need to know each device’s licensed owner, device connectivity, bit-rate and format capability and free storage. It would also need to know where the music was actually stored, on the personal cloud or in the big cloud. Obviously, the consumer would need to be shielded by all this complexity with a single user interface that co-mingles all music regardless of location.

Conclusion
Music is one of the most personal and pervasive forms of entertainment available. To deliver music to suit consumers, a large ecosystem exists consisting of artists, labels, distribution, stores, and lots of technology. While I am sure there are 100′s of sub-variations, the future of technology mechanisms fall basically into three camps. One method is where music is primarily local, another where music is primarily in the cloud, and a hybrid of the two. Regardless of where you stand, a more intelligent method will be required in the future to manage the complexity and diversity of music. A Personal Music Cloud in the home could very well be a part of a future solution.