Friday, June 22, 2007

How do you listen to Internet audio?

I saw an interesting piece of market research on Digital Media Wire. As the study says:

"Nearly three-quarters of U.S. online adults listen to audio on their home computers, but only 9% have it set up so they can listen to music on their computers on home stereo systems"

This says a couple of things to me. Firstly (and seemingly obviously) is that there's a disconnect here, so that 63% of online adults have a need for some extra hardware to connect the computer to the living room. This seems like bread and butter for the Sonos, Creative X-Dock, Apple TV, and at the lower end, the Noxon type devices. To one extent or other, these devices are trying to bridge the PC-Stereo gap. Then you don't have to be in "work" mode while you're listening to music.

The second thing that occurs to me is that part (most?) of the disconnect is explained by device sideloading, i.e. most people search for and select music at the PC, but then just dump it on the iPod and listen to it there. I'm typical of this category. Sure I play music on the PC occasionally, if only to refine my selections. But my main consumption is offline iPod use (for which commuting and dog-walking provide ample opprtunity).

Regardless of this qualification, it's clear that we're going to be moving audio and video around the house in the near future, and probably wirelessly. Analysts have been saying for years that it's just around the corner, and merely a question of whether the PC or the TV/Hifi is the central hub. This seems to be an over-simplification, the market will most likely fragment more. Some people will consume media sitting at their PCs because they want the extra control, some will stream to the living-room, some will carry all their media in their iPods and simply plug'n'play in car/living-room/earbud as desired.

So where does this leave the hardware vendors above trying to connect PC to the living room? I think they face essentially 3 hurdles, and if these are overcome then their products will fly off shelves:

  • Usability. Probably Sonos and Apple can sort this out. Synchronisation with online music services will help.

  • Price. Too expensive. Will drop.

  • Marketing. Paradoxically the hardest. Do you find it in the computer or the hi-fi section, or worse still household goods? These things don't fit into known shopping themes, so people don't know they need it. There'll be an uphill struggle to get shelf space. Then comes a tipping point in market awareness, and "Connected Media Devices" will be a whole new shopping section.

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