Two years ago, before the days of the Rio or even Saehan’s MP-Man, a tall, somewhat balding British man came by my dorm room to talk with me about digital audio. He explained to me his plans for a flash-memory based portable music player and showed me drawings and designs for his solid-state device, dating back to 1988. He wanted me to help him find a team of people to build such a device. Who was this man who seemed to come before his time? Arguably, he could have patented portable solid-state audio playback and been a millionaire by now, but he never got around to it, busy instead with desktop publishing, video DJ equipment, and a service that lets you send phone messages to ICQ users. It’s quite likely that this Brit is the Original Online Music Man.
His name is Alex Blok. Born in 1963, Alex grew up around the times when Star Trek and the Beatles were all the rage. At the age of 15, Alex was fascinated by his Casio calculator that could play simple tones; why not play music on it? Throughout his education at Crickdale and Newbury Colleges in the UK, he felt disappointed by the lack of computer music delivery. Vinyl scratched, tapes wore out, and even CDs started to skip with time. He felt that Music bits could be, should be more permanent.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a digital music box of sorts that just played you music as you wanted it, automatically charging you for the music as you retrieved it? Alex views the “pay per view” model as being more fair. He felt appalled that CD prices were not cheaper than tapes, bitterly commenting that “the industry is screwing everyone.” The Madison Project, an effort by IBM, Sony, and Time-Warner to provide a secure music distribution pipeline, worries him, as does SDMI. He’d like to provide a solution that offers consumers complete freedom.
Going beyond just music, in 1988 Alex began to think of a universal data storage platform that he called UDiS (Universal Digital information Storage) Media. Designed to replace the plethora of physical media formats that had swept the market (audio tape, VHS, Beta, vinyl, 8-track, CD, laserdisk, etc.), Alex invented three different sizes of portable data: the DataStick, a cylindrical stick of flash memory (amazingly similar to Sony’s MemoryStick, but a dozen years before it!); the DataCard, designed to be roughly the form factor of a credit card; and a DataBook to provide larger-scale storage — Alex had envisioned holographic optometry as possibly providing the storage mechanism for the DataBook.
In process of conceiving this universal storage format, Alex had naturally been thinking about applications to music, Alex came up with an audio device that would use his DataCard format. It featured digital recording from a microphone or from the radio, and could download music from a computer for playback. (He has posted his original design sketches on the web.) He predicted it would be ten years before anyone manufactured such a device. Saehan Information Systems of Korea released their MP-Man portable digital audio player in 1998, exactly ten years after Alex fleshed out his ideas for the portable player.
I asked Alex what he thought about the whole streaming versus downloading debate. He sees both in the future of music, but eventually streaming taking over for most applications as universal broadband access becomes a reality. In the interim, streaming will suffice for live applications like concerts, and production works (i.e., studio recordings) will likely be downloaded. “People do like to own things; people will still want to put together their own collections of music.”
Alex’s views on cash flow are liberalist (a good thing in my own humble opinion), pushing for complete artist control over how their works are distributed and purchased, possibly with some sort of “shareware music” model winning out for most artists. “Some music will be free, some paid for, and some will be pay-per-play.” He sees Sony and Panasonic making devices that would lock artists into specific revenue models and limiting their freedom in this aspect.
Indeed, Alex seems at once bitter at Sony and in awe of its products. He blames the limiting of CD’s potential on Sony’s mixed interests in both the media and the medium: the content and the technology. “CDs,” he gripes, “were promised to be cheap! They were supposed to show the title of the song, and have more information bundled with them…Sony intentionally built the CD with obsolescence in mind.”
“Overall, though,” Alex concedes, “CDs are great.” His main concern is that those reponsible for the manufacture of a technology will take control of it and reduce its potential. Alex would like to see music brought to the listener in a fun and flexible way, and he doesn’t think that large companies would be able to provide that. “We’re in the middle of a consumer rebellion, a revolution. Are consumers going to win? Yes! And so will musicians. All is going to turn out well. It’s exciting; we’re living in a great time.”