Head in the clouds

Google has finally debuted (for a June release) its Chromebook laptops, bare-bones netbooks running Google’s new Chrome OS. This has some people very excited about a new way to consume media. Should I join them?

The concept of Chrome is the old idea of the “thin client.” That is, rather than making a “computer” a standalone device capable of doing all the user’s various needs, the computer is little more than a gateway to access data and applications stored elsewhere – in the proverbial “cloud” on the internet. Instead of installing Microsoft Word or iWork, you use Google Docs, which stores your documents online. Instead of playing a game from your hard drive, you play a web app. And – the subject of this post – instead of playing a song from iTunes or an MP3 file, you load a song stored online somewhere.

An article the other day at Wired extols this new model as the future:

The main allure of cloud music is its elimination of bloated client-side software like iTunes, which duplicates music files all over your hard drive, eats up RAM, and requires wires to transfer music to devices. Instead, your computing devices will function more as input points for uploading songs, bookmarking them on music services such as YouTube, tagging them as favorites within a music service, adding them to your personal collection, or making playlists out of them in order to find them more easily within a large subscription library.

The article also notes one drawback: when you’re accessing your music over the internet, you run into the sharp drawback that mobile internet access is increasingly no longer unlimited. In fact, if you pay $50 per month for the priciest data plan your Chromebook accepts, and use the internet for nothing but streaming music, you’ll only be able to listen to three hours of music per day – at a low bitrate – until you run out of bandwidth.

The comments on the article are almost uniformly derisive:

Why on earth would I want to store things in the cloud when data rates are so expensive compared to the price of hard drives. Sorry, it's a "solution" in search of a problem.

And I have to say: as much as I like new technology, I have to agree.

One reason is practical: I listen to enough music that it wouldn’t be cost-effective to do so over a mobile broadband connection at those rates. Maybe in five or 10 years, the situation will have changed to make cloud access effectively unlimited again.

But even then, I’m skeptical. Psychologically, I’m a collector. I like owning things. I’ve got a sizable personal library, a big movie collection and an even bigger music collection – around 66 gigabytes of music, 13,300 different songs, enough to listen to music nonstop for 36 days without repeating a song. This poses practical difficulties – no way does that amount of music fit onto any of the cloud storage services, be it Google’s or Amazon’s.

More to the point, it reflects a different way of listening to music. Streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Last.fm are not, for me, a substitute for my iTunes library. They’re music discovery services – a way to find out about new artists. If I like them, I buy their songs and add them to my iTunes library – and then, usually, wear them out with obsessive listening until I move on to a new album.

Once I pass that initial surge of interest in a song, album or artist, they drop into my “back catalog” – where my use of them becomes much more interactive. I build playlists incorporating songs from disparate genres, I edit them together into mixes, I rate them, add lyrics, and take advantage of the deep library to rediscover forgotten songs.

All that is to say, I take ownership of my music and interact with it in a very hands-on way. I like to know my songs, to be conversant in the history of the bands, to pore over the lyrics for themes. I’m not someone to just listen to the radio, to a stream curated by someone else (be they a DJ or a computer algorithm). The alternative model, where you have access to – but not ownership of – a vast library in the cloud has little appeal to me.

I know that many people love the access model. It works well for them. They listen to Pandora for music, watch movies over Netflix, borrow books from the library. For these people, the Chromebook may be a guidepost for the future of media. Certainly I’ll readily admit that it’s a newer idea, very “Third Wave” (in the Tofflerian sense) or “information age.” My love of owning copies of my media is a “Second Wave,” industrial age attitude. Are we headed, once this technology reaches fruition, for an age where only the passionate or the wealthy own copies of media? I can certainly envision such a future. But even if the shortfalls of the cloud technology today (limited, inconsistent access to the cloud) are solved, I find it hard to envision myself discarding the old model entirely. For better or worse, I like to own – so the Chromebook isn’t for me.