Thursday, September 08, 2005

Mobile Communities

I have a natural bias towards community building, particularly in the virtual space. People are inherently social creatures and we use the web to connect with one another and trade information. Content is the one of the dominant currencies for this exchange. (And no, I'm not pretending that any the preceding bears the faintest trace of original thought.)

So, when Apple took the lid off of one of the worst-kept secrets in technology this week about the launch of the iTunes-enabled ROKR E1 phone and the iPod Nano, I confess to having expected more.

What’s really new here? That music is being digitized and made portable on smaller and smaller devices? Certainly not. Is it that music is moving towards distribution via wireless networks? Not really. People have been downloading ringtones, games and other forms of content onto their phones for awhile now. Satellite radio has been available on portable devices for several years.

So what we have with yesterday’s announcement is another pair of devices that give individual consumers another one-way interaction with a centralized content source. And that is no longer “breathtaking,” to borrow Steve Jobs’ description of the Nano.

Smaller size and new features aside, the only thing that is fundamentally different about the iTunes-iPod model since its launch is the introduction of the Podcast, which was not an Apple innovation.

The genius of the Podcast is that it allows consumers to use Apple’s iPod-iTunes platform as the foundation for connecting with one another, sharing preferences and building a community. The format allows users to publicly recognize content they believe is worthy and to be creative about how they do so.

By featuring Podcasts, the iTunes interface advanced on the web browser as an essential tool with which consumers interact with other consumers via the World Wide Web. In essence, it was a step from B2C to C2C, or C2B2C. Such steps are what allow companies such as eBay, Yahoo! and gain strangleholds over their markets and preserve margins.

In light of the cult that comprises much of Apple’s consumer base, I’m certainly not suggesting that Apple doesn’t appreciate communities. The conundrum Apple faces is that the iPod is anything but a social tool. If it were, perhaps they’d call it a wePod. As it stands, white earbuds have become the universal signal for one tuning out the world. The challenge to Apple is, now that there’s a large base of iPod owners out there, what will it take to get these people interacting on the basis of their iPod ownership? If p2p is a dirty term, then how about pod2pod?

The ROKR E1 is a potential answer to this challenge, but not in its current architecture. Presently, this is an iPod that you can talk on. (As an aside, I wonder what the airlines think of this. Can you have the music function on and the phone part disabled?) I’m sure that, in future iterations, that you will be able to download directly to the phone, rather than having to connect it to your computer. But the elephant in the living room is this: Phones’ fundamental functionality is p2p. We use them to engage the world, rather than to wall ourselves off from it.

And music doesn’t have to be wall. It can be a bridge. For example, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to listen to the music or podcasts of everyone on your call list or of every ROKR E1 owner in the vicinity? Or to view the video content of the same groups? Think about the kind of discovery (read: sales) that could be facilitated by such a model.

It’s not just music, as many Podcasts contain little to no music. When you connect the dots among blogs, podcasts and camera phones, you see that there is a new New Journalism evolving, where users are becoming citizen journalists, using interactive devices and media to paste together collages of text, video and audio to share with whoever is logged on. Devices such as the ROKR possess a unique capacity for producing, distributing and receiving such user-developed content. If Apple can look beyond the short-term goal of hooking users on the Apple interface, Apple could position itself as the nexus for such sharing.

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