Guest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
It's true, what they say: Our digital lives are moving to the cloud. Whenever we fire up Facebook instead of a local email client, we're taking part in the shift from locally-run software to the networked app world.
However, some fairly major parts of those digital lives — our music, movies, and other activities — haven't truly moved to the cloud, at least when it comes to all of those smartphones and tablets we've been buying, and they likely won't for the foreseeable future.
We are running out of wireless bandwidth.
The supply of wireless data in the United States — the stuff that lets us use the internet on our smartphones and tablets — is fast disappearing, as reported by CNN Money, which found the crisis pressing enough to warrant a week of dedicated coverage.
[Above graphic: CNN Money's chart, which relies on data from the FCC, shows our wireless spectrum surplus becoming a deficit next year.]
Consumers - and music fans in particular - are already feeling the squeeze. As a recent example, AT&T reneged last month on its promise to provide unlimited data to customers who ordered and paid for it. Not only does AT&T not sell unlimited data plans anymore, but it won't even honor the ones it already sold, despite pledging to grandfather those users in (if they agree never to tether their computers to their phones and abide by other annoying restrictions). If you were counting on AT&T to let you stream all the music you wanted, well, you no longer can.
As a result, the streaming world that has taken over media consumption on our PCs (think Spotify and Netflix) doesn't translate cleanly to the mobile devices that are replacing computers in other parts of our lives. By our calculation, Verizon's $50/month limited data plan, which comes with 5GB of fast LTE wireless bandwidth each month, would only let you listen to about an hour of MOG's music (which Verizon streams at 320 Kbps) per day — and that's if you don't use your phone for anything else.
The last time we asked, Pandora's Tim Westergren told Evolver.fm he's not too worried about limited data plans because Pandora streams to mobiles at a hyper-efficient 32 Kbps (using aacplus). But even Pandora would benefit from offline playback in the subway and on airplanes, and has other reasons to consider offline playback, including improved sound quality.
In addition, even if Westergren's right that Pandora is efficient enough that it doesn't need to worry about its users' data consumption, it needs mobile listeners who can be advertised to at higher rates due to the fact that they sometimes walk past an advertiser's physical location. And if mobile users are concerned about data usage, even without cause, they might think twice about listening to Pandora all day on their phones. The perception of a limit can be as effective as an actual limit.
[Graphic right: In Spotify's iPhone app, you can choose to view only those playlists that have been cached for offline playback, which is a nice way of dealing with this increasingly important issue.]
As the bandwidth crunch continues, we expect to see bargain plans proliferate alongside with new ways of throttling accounts when they play too much music or watch too much video. Are music fans really going to want to listen to another hour of music if it means they might lose the ability to read web pages or use Facebook by the end of the month? Maybe, but they won't use the cloud to do it.
This is particularly troubling because so much music listening happens in the car, where every digital music executive we've asked agrees that the smartphone will continue to function as the modem for at least the foreseeable future.
A solution to this problem exists, and some music apps already embrace it: offline playback. For example, Spotify's app can store up to 3,333 songs on your smartphone's or tablet's memory, so that you can play them without tapping in to your wireless data plan or staying near WiFi. Likewise, Slacker lets users cache entire streaming radio stations offline, so they can listen to programmed music without a connection.
This sort of caching requires a separate license from copyright holders. We have not been able to determine how much more that license costs, but it's likely to be an increasingly valuable feature as heavy media users seek to store pieces of the cloud on their devices.
However, one precedent suggests app developers shouldn't have to pay copyright holders anything extra for caching songs and videos on portable devices. ISPs don't have to pay for so-called "ephemeral copies" of media on their servers (stored there to ease transmission), so long as those copies are destroyed after being sent on to users. The same concept could apply to ephemeral copies stored on users' devices, which would make it easier for developers to add this increasingly important feature.
Regardless of how that plays out, offline playback is already here. Even if it might sound a little wonky and geeky — like something only system administrators would care about — offline playback could become a must-have feature for any music or video service that runs on portables. In other words: Don't leave home without it.