Massive traffic to iTunes from new iPod owners and gift card recipients swamped the iTunes servers on Christmas day, causing crashes, slow downloads, problems with purchases, and general griping. iTunes apparently received over 400% more traffic than last Christmas, and Apple was caught unprepared. Similar chaos happened with the music service Rhapsody, with users complaining of an unwelcome Christmas present when songs wouldn’t stream and faulty DRM permissions prevented users from listening to their rightfully licensed music. Meanwhile, just two days after Christmas, an earthquake knocked out nearly all internet access to Asia. The thought of a continent cut off from the internet is mind-boggling—a natural experiment indeed!
These hiccups demonstrate one difficulty with the new movement towards online services replacing traditional modes of activity. Online data applications are great until you find yourself without an internet connection or a software service that upgraded to a version that doesn’t work as well. Once Google acquired Writely and changed it to Google Documents, I’ve found collaborators have more trouble figuring out how to login to work on a document. That part should be easy. Servers going down, slow connections, upgrades to Internet Explorer or Firefox that suddenly make your Web 2.0 application go buggy are all reasons that the typical consumer is going to reject these alternatives to current approaches to services.
Still, the expectation is that people’s reliance on internet connectivity is going to increase exponentially in the near future. The Los Angeles Times asked several technologists what trends they saw taking shape in 2007, and their answers were surprisingly consistent. Steve Ballmer sees great things in online TV and digital rights management, and is optimistic about how communications technology will improve through convergence:
2007 will be the year that unified communications technology helped us regain control of our information and our lives.
Ned Sherman says that virtual worlds, such as Second Life and Warcraft, will grow to a prominent place in our lives. Rafat Ali predicts that online personalities will take hold of our attention. Kevin Webach predicts P2P television will take off. Chris Anderson sees online gaming enabling online video on televisions. Hank Barry sees “virtualization technologies” allowing people to become computer agnostic and transfer their data and applications with ease from one machine to another. John Brockman sees WiFi as an enabler to “continuous computing” where your data and and apps can follow you wherever you go.
All of these predictions, perhaps, overestimate the eagerness of the average person to embrace new technology, learn new procedures, and generally change the way that they live their lives. Look at how long online retail really took to become a major force. Look at how Tivo is still struggling to survive.
New approaches are enthusiastically embraced by younger generations. MySpace is dominated by teenagers and twenty-somethings. There is a strong age divide, however. I am continually amazed whenever I talk to someone who is middle-aged and realize that they have no idea what YouTube is. Next time you’re talking to someone over the age of 30, ask them what online music sources they listen to, and if they prefer streaming radio or podcasts. Predictions such as those made in the LA Times need to tempered by these generational gaps in consumer acceptance or risk being perceived as being simply the wet dreams of executive technologists.
Technology will change, but it will take time for the typical consumer to accept these changes. Changes are going to have to be easy to adapt to and there must be a strong reason to motivate people to change. I sound like a luddite here even though I am thoroughly absorbed by such technologies. While driving home from work at the end of the year, I heard a music critic on NPR state that CD sales were down 5% in 2006 and then he went on to list his top 10 albums of the year. Soon after arriving home, I was listening to one of the critic's picks—My Chemical Romance—through the online music service Rhapsody and was wondering at the vast number of people who still buy CDs and keep CD sales from plummeting at an even faster rate.