Music

Google Now, Maps and Apple Music

Google Now looks like Google's most magical, artificially intelligent product. And in some senses it is, but it is also in some senses Google's most manual product. Each category that Now knows about and makes magical suggestions around is the result of a human making an editorial choice to create that category. Google Now gained cricket scores not because it 'learned' that there was cricket but because someone at Google wrote a recipe for cricket. 

Obviously, you can't do this for everything - Google Now cannot scale to the whole internet. It can do a lot, and certainly enough to be a great product, but it can't do everything, not until we have 'true' HAL 9000-style AI, which is a long way off. The underlying domain is not actually infinite, but like Borges's library it might as well be for any manually-edited project - Yahoo's manually-edited directory peaked at 3.2m sites but had become absurd long before that. So there are gaps - you're making something that looks like AI but isn't. Google Now covers the gaps by keeping quiet, where Siri covers the same kinds of gaps by making jokes (that was probably a better product management decision - if you baffle Siri you get a blank stare or a laugh but if you baffle Now you never know about it). 

 Contrast this with Google Maps, which is also partly a manual product. Hundreds or thousands of people drive Streetview cars down roads and hundreds or thousands of people check the images and edit the maps. There's lots of machine vision too, as well (and crowd-sourcing), but the back-stop is lots of paid employees. The algorithms alone aren't good enough yet. Editing the internet by hand was just too big, but editing maps isn't - it's just very expensive. Google is willing to spend that (and Apple is going to try too). 

So, mapping the internet by hand is impossible - you need algorithms. But mapping the world with algorithms alone is also impossible, for now - you need people to look at the data too.

I see Apple Music as sitting somewhere in this second category - manual curation at scale. Here the problem to be solved is that the commodity streaming service's 'search box plus 30m tracks' offers no way to discover anything you might like but haven't already heard of. You need personalised suggestions, from somewhere. But how do you suggest things from 30m tracks? It is in principle pretty easy to get some data about what people like, especially once they start listening (and so stop lying). But how do you know what aligns to that preference data?

Pandora applies an algorithm. Apple Music is trying the Google Maps approach: "doing this at least partly by hand is not an impossibly large problem, just a very big one". Just as Google manually adds metadata to the raw maps (street names, one-way streets, business names etc) Apple manually places tracks into playlists with its own metadata. Then it takes the interest data it has about a user and suggest 10 or 20 or 30 playlists, and, hopefully, there's a good chance that enough of them will be right. (It covers the gap that Siri covers with jokes and Now covers by keeping quiet by overshooting - it's probably OK if 15 are not quite right if 10 are on target.)

How many playlists you need? 5,000? 10,000? With a few hundred editors that's not actually an impossible challenge, just a big one. And a cynic might suggest that really, you only need a few hundred for the vast majority of music listeners, if you do them right. 

Beats - content is king?

Apple's Beats deal is a Rorschach Blot: people's reactions slot into their existing view of whether Apple still has 'it'. If you think Apple's lost it, the Beats deal is confirmation. If you don't, it's… perplexing. This is a very out-of character move for Apple (though having everyone puzzled is in character). I've seen plenty of suggestions, but few really convincing rationales that make this company worth $3bn to Apple.

That said, one thing that is clear is that Apple doesn't rule digital music anymore. Streaming and YouTube ended that, along with smartphones. Instead of a library of tracks you’ve bought and paid for, locked to a single platform by proprietary DRM, you can now listen to any track you want on any device you want, and can switch between different music services with little friction. And the iPhone’s multi-touch screen itself broke the iPod’s monopoly on good user experience - now anyone can make a decent music player experience on any device, in code.

Hence, the iPod was a lovely business but it's now pretty much over. Apple has sold 392m iPods since launch (including something over 100m iPod Touches, though) for around $66.6bn, (plus of course the revenue from selling music, which is a more complex issue). There's not much more to come.

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This reflects a broader change: content isn't king anymore.

Music has gone from being a key strategic lever in the tech industry to an afterthought. The same applies to movie and TV libraries - media has gone from being a choke-point to a check-box, commodity feature than every platform has to offer but where none has any particular advantage. Books have evolved slightly differently, but with Kindle on any device you might possibly want to read on, books are not a platform lock-in either (except possible for Amazon, but that remains to be seen).  So for a platform owner or device maker, the content you can offer is no longer a strategic asset. Content doesn't sell devices, because they all have the same content. 

In parallel, of course, the actual value of content - music in particular - is dwarfed by the value of the smartphone explosion. The iPhone alone generated $26bn in revenue last quarter - the entire recorded music industry brought in about $17bn in 2013, and the last three quarters of iPhone sales brought in more hardware revenue than the iPod in its entire history. And though 391m iPods have been sold since 2001, there are over 1.5bn smartphones on earth right now, and close to 300m are sold every quarter.   

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The amount of money involved, never that large in the context of the consumer technology industry, is such now a small percentage of Apple or Google's revenues that they might almost offer it at cost, just to have the feature. This was one reason why, before the iPhone even launched, Jeff Zucker, then CEO at NBCU, suggested that he should get a cut of iPod hardware revenue. He was mocked in the tech industry but was making a perfectly legitimate point: the money in digital video was in the devices, not the video. At that point the content he was putting on iTunes still gave Apple leverage - not anymore. This is what the people behind Beats Music may have caught on to - the money is in headphones, not the tracks they play. 

The one remaining place where content is king, of course, is TV, at least in the key US market. If someone tells you they’re going to disrupt mobile, ask them ‘with what spectrum?’, and if they say they’re going to disrupt TV then ask ‘with what content?’ Here, again, there's no differentiation: every device has the same music, movies and books and doesn't have the same TV. 

Hence, the one remaining place for Apple to work its magic is in the TV market. I wrote a post here talking about all the reasons why the US TV market in particular is rigid and also so brittle: there is still scope here for a technology company or other to put together a totally unique offer, with content as the key leverage point. But I'm not sure there's any such scope in music. 

Music and curation

Fascinating interview with Jimmy Iovine, creator of Beats, on the value of curation and of thinking about how music sounds. Music hasn't been important to technology for quite a while, since streaming killed DRM and hence platform lock-ins. Now it's becoming interesting again, perhaps. 

iPod eclipse

Some time in the last quarter, cumulative sales of iPhones passed those of iPods. This is no great surprise - the iPod has been in decline for a long time, as use moves to smart phones, and quarterly iPhone unit sales passed iPod sales back in 2010. Even within iPods, half of the volume in recent years has been the Touch, which is much more than a music player. Music now means smartphones.

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As music has moved on from the iPod, it has actually become much less important to the tech industry. With streaming and the decline of ownership, there are fewer barriers to switching service, and every device has a choice of music services, both from the platform owner (i.e. Apple/Google/Microsoft/Nokia etc) and as third-party apps. In effect,  music has become a commodity. The big platform companies make sure they have it as a checkbox feature - they need to have music - but it’s not really important as a point of strategic leverage anymore. Music doesn't give you a lock-in. 

In addition, total 2012 recorded music revenue was only about $19bn - Apple made $18bn in revenue from the iPhone last quarter. When you subtract what you pay to the labels and artists the revenue left over to the music service itself is almost a rounding error in the scale of the tech industry. One could argue that trying to charge a little extra and make more profit is more trouble than it’s worth for Google or Apple (or even profit-hungry Amazon) - better to offer it at cost or thereabouts to enhance the value of the broader platform, which is where the real money comes from (advertising and devices respectively).

The same thing is happening in books and video - content is a condition of entry to the platform game that you provide at cost. This obviously makes life pretty tough for startups - it's hard to try to build your own ebook store or download-to-own music store right now when any device your customers might use probably already has an at-cost service built-in. The one place this might be different is in video, since in that business it is actually possible to have unique content - but of course this is very expensive. 

In other words, music is now arguably irrelevant to the tech industry, in strategic or ecosystem terms. You have to have it, but it really doesn't give much leverage, because everyone else has the same stuff.  And so the attention that music gets rather outstrips how important it actually is.  

Meanwhile, app stores grow and grow. We have no data for Google Play, but it looks like run-rate gross revenue on the Apple app store is a little under $3bn a quarter, and growing. That would give revenue for this year of $11bn to $12bn, perhaps. Add in Google Play (half the size?) and it seems pretty clear that app store revenue will pass recorded music some time in the next year or so. 

Metadata

The state of metadata for classical music in 2013. The name of the piece crammed into each track title, an irrelevant 'album' field and no composer at all. Sadly, now such a small industry that this systemic problem may never get fixed. 

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