Wednesday Jan 10, 2007

The first set of Fortress source code has been posted to and is available now for download by the Open Source Community at  Fortress is a next-generation programming language tailored for scientific computing.  The goal of Fortress is to do for Fortran what Java did for C.  Congrats to the whole Fortress Team.

Tuesday Jan 09, 2007

#5 - Amazon didn't launch a music store.   - Early in 2006 the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon was getting ready to open a digital music store to compete with the almighty iTunes.  According to the WSJ, Amazon would offer an all-you-can-eat subscription service and a branded Amazon player from Samsung, with a scheduled store launch in the summer of 2006.  Well, Summer came and went - with no sign of the music store. Jeff Bezos - head of the Amazon empire was heard remarking that Amazon would not get into the music business until they could figure out what they could do that would be different than all of the other offerings out there.  Now rumors are that Amazon is planning on launching the store as early as March 2007.  I'm excited about this - really excited. Here's why:

  • MP3s -  Rumor is that the Amazon store will sell music that is not DRM laden -meaning that the songs will play in any device without restriction.  The Amazon store may be the first big step toward the death of DRM. This is also good news for anyone trying to do content-based recommendation - systems like those used by MusicIP that analyze the content of the music don't work when the music is protected by DRM.  Likewise researchers in the Music Information Retrieval community working on problems such as automatic music classification, beat detection,  thumbnailing, summarization, etc. will be able to work with Amazon supplied MP3s - something that they can't do with the billions of tracks that have been purchased from iTunes.
  • Subscription model -  It is hard to square an all-you-can-eat subscription model with DRM-free MP3s -  so I am a bit skeptical that Amazon would offer this - but still, it is interesting to think about an Amazon-branded music player coupled with such a music subscription service.  The mobile phone model would seem to work well here - Amazon could offer a free Amazon music player with a 2-year music subscription.  The music player could be one of the nano-esque Samsung players that look very nice.

  • Discovery -  Amazon's focus on discovery makes Amazon a much better online bookstore than any other bookstore.  They use all sorts of ways to connect a reader with a book.  Collaborative filtering, book reviews, customer lists,  content search,  best seller lists , special deals.  These techniques help get their readers deep into the long tail of books.  Discovery is in Amazon's genes.  When they start selling digital music, you can bet that they will have the same focus on discovery and give the listener new and interesting ways to find music in the long tail.  A listener may come to Amazon to pick up the latest U2 track, but may find themselves happily downloading a track by an obscure artist.  This is good for the listener - they will will be exposed to a larger variety of music and this is good for the long tail artists.
  • Metadata - Amazon has a great set of web services built around their data.  Using Amazon's web services, one can get access to book descriptions, book cover images, reviews, pricing information - just about  any piece of data  in Amazon's database is exposed via their web services.  Exposing their data in this fashion places Amazon at the center of the online literary ecosystem.   Any startup company that wants to be in a business related to books will  use Amazon's API  because it is easy, the data is of high quality and it is free.  This is good for the startup, and even better for Amazon since all of those startups end up sending their customers to Amazon.  Amazon is already a big part of the music ecosystem.  They already have lots of data for music CDs that is available via their web APIs.  They are probably the largest supplier of album art on the web.  The Amazon part number - the ASIN - is used throughout the web as an unambiguous identifier for an album. Once Amazon starts to sell individual tracks, I would expect that Amazon will create an ASIN or an equivalent for each track in their database.  This track-level identifier may become the primary way of identifying tracks in the music world since Amazon makes it so easy to get all of the information about an item once you have the ASIN.  This could be a key enabler in the next generation of music - a  ubiquitous song ID tied to deep metadata.
  • Variable pricing - Instead of $0.99 per track Amazon will set the price of a song related to its popularity and freshness.  There's no reason that a track that sells only a few copies a year should sell for the same price as the latest chart topper.  Sites like Amie Street are already demonstrating that variable pricing models can be a really interesting part of the discovery process and an important business model.
  • Brand -  The Amazon brand is well known and liked (at least in the U.S) - this gives them a big step up over companies like Microsoft (that has a less than stellar reputation in some circles) and eMusic (which is not well known outside of the music geek world). 

So Amazon has a lot going for it.  Now let me offer a few suggestions to the folks building the Amazon music store that will make a big difference to the digital music world:

  •  ASIN <--> MBID - provide a web service that will map between ASINs and MusicBrainz IDs.  MusicBrainz is a community music metadatabase that provides all sorts of interesting music metadata for artists, albums and songs.  An MBID is the MusicBrainz ID that is associated with a track, album or artist.  If there's an easy bridge between the Amazon metadata and the MusicBrainz data, the value of both databases will be enhanced.
  • Use XSPF - XSPF is an emerging xml-based playlist format that is designed to encourage playlist sharing and portability.  XSPF is simple, portable and open. By adopting the XSPF format Amazon would  increase the visibility and use of this format leading to its wide adoption as the way of representing playlists.
  • Don't DRM the 30 second clips - There are lots of  people in the research and in the commercial world that are doing interesting things with audio - things like content-based recommendation, mood classification, beat tracking, music visualization.  A common problem for these folks is getting access to the audio - especially for new music. It is expensive to build a research collection around new music - and after a couple of years the research collection is no longer new.  If Amazon provided a way to turn an ASIN into a 30 second snippet of a song (even a low quality excerpt), they would enable a whole new generation of content-based music research - that would ultimately lead to a much more interesting set of tools for exploring and interacting with music.
So .. yes, I'm bullish on Amazon in the music space.  Amazon's emphasis on discovery, their willingness to provide access to their metadata and their rejection of DRM give them the ability to compete with the all-mighty iTunes.    Of course a year from now, I may be writing once again about Amazon in the "Top things that didn't happen in 2007" blog entry - but I think that  in 2007 we may see the tipping point for digital music and Amazon may be at the center of it all.

Monday Jan 08, 2007


#4 - Google didn't think music was worth indexing  - Google's mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."  To this end, Google has been innovating in text search, mapping software,  and image search.  Google is now working with libraries to digitally scan books from their collections and will start to add this data to its main search index. This book scanning effort has been  controversial since Google is scanning books with out the approval of the publishers.  But Google doesn't mind a fight - and is not shy about dealing with copyright holders.  So with Google's mission to organize the world's information along with its willingness to go toe-to-toe with copyright holders one would think that Google would be building an index of music and music metadata and applying some of those nifty approaches used in the MIR community to allow people to find music and information about music.  But instead of an all encompassing music index, Google has just stuck its toe in the music search water.  It has released only a few music related search features. First there is  Music Trends from Google labs - this is Google's version of Audioscrobbler - think of without all of the users or nifty features like song tagging, friends,  tag radio, or  recommendations. Then there's Google Music search  which adds all sorts of information about an artist search result such as cover art, photos, reviews, links to buy the cd - pretty neat stuff, but a far cry from a real music search such as we see with Mp3Realm Melody Hound or Mercora.

The question is 'Why hasn't Google done for music what it is doing for Books?'  Why does Google seem to be ignoring its mission to organize the world's information when it comes to music?  Is it because the music industry has more collective power than the book publishing industry?  Is it because Sergey doesn't listen to much music?  Or perhaps Google is already building the ultimate music search index and will unleash it on the world in 2007.

Sunday Jan 07, 2007

#3 Yahoo didn't buy - for a while it seemed that Yahoo was going to buy all of the Web 2.0 companies. They bought Flickr. They bought  It seemed quite natural that the next thing they would buy would be venerable (in the web sense) Last.FM.  Last.FM is one of the first of the Music 2.0 companies - they have been collecting all sorts of really interesting data - social tags,  user song plays.  Over the last 4 years they've collected billions of data points about music taste.  This data can be used for all sorts of things: recommendations, identifying tastemakers , novel playlist generation, spotting the next breakout band.   So with Yahoo seemingly buying every Web 2.0 company it could, it seemed only natural that Last.FM would join the Yahoo empire.  But instead, there was the Peanut butter manifesto about Yahoo spreading itself too thin.  Yahoo was having a hard time figuring out how to monetize its Flickr and acquisitions. The social music space was getting crowded with newcomers launching every other month.  At the end of the year, was still an independent company - it still was the largest social music network with 5 million unique visitors per month.   Now  the maturing has to figure out how to use those eyeballs and all that golden data into to stay ahead of the pack - without the help of a company like Yahoo.

Thursday Jan 04, 2007

#2 - Microsoft didn't try - With Apple merely treading water in 2006 it seemed that there might be room for a challenger. The obvious candidate was Microsoft's Zune.  On paper the Zune looked like it could be a serious contender. It had some novel features like wifi and song sharing. It had a nice display and cool interface.  But the Zune had a few problems at launch.  The gadget bloggers had horrible install problems with the first Zunes.  There were some rather strange images and advertisements. The device itself looked and felt like a brick compared to the iPod.  The device didn't support podcasts.  It didn't work with Vista.  You had to use confusing Zune Points to buy songs. And on and on. Now these glitches could have been forgiven - Microsoft is known for under-delivering on version 1.0 products - if the core experience was novel and interesting.  But the key distinguishing feature of the Zune - the song sharing (aka 'squirting') was hamstrung - by overbearing DRM - the shared songs would dissolve after 3 plays or 3 days.  The Zune wifi couldn't be used for syncing or listening to streaming internet radio.  Microsoft turned its back on its PlayForSure licensees by creating a new and incompatible DRM - (the only reason was to create their own iTunes-like proprietary music silo) and perhaps worst of all Microsoft bought into the fiction put forward by the music labels that anyone with a digital music player must be a thief. Microsoft agreed to pay a music tax to Universal for every Zune sold.  It was almost as if Microsoft wasn't even trying with the Zune.  Bill Gates even said admitted that Microsoft had only 'modest' aspirations with the Zune.  Despite my misgivings about Microsoft in general, I was really hoping that they would do something interesting with the Zune - at least that would stimulate some innovation in the digital music world.  But I fear Michael Robertson's prediction about the Zune will be right on the mark. 

Wednesday Jan 03, 2007

I really thought that 2006 would be a year of momentous events in the digital music world - instead 2006 will likely be remembered as the year that nothing happened. Since this is the season for making lists, here's my contribution (Now since I am a lazy blogger, I'm going to break this list up into 5 separate posts, sorry):

The top 5 things in the digital music world that didn't happen in 2006

#1 - Apple didn't innovate - Apple, the undisputed leader in the digital music world, with its stunnning 85% market share, with more than a billion tracks sold, and the sole supplier of the coveted 'perfect thing'  is spending less time on music and more time on video -  expanding its iTunes empire to include TV and movies. This focus on video leaves few cycles left in Cupertino to devote to improving the music experience. This year Apple gave us music listeners a few crumbs: gapless playback, a slightly smarter shuffle, an album art browser and a minimal text search capability on its latest iPod.   There are lots of things that Apple could have done but didn't.  Apple didn't offer an 'all-you-can-eat'  music subscription service. Apple didn't add music or taste sharing to iTunes or the iPod. Apple didn't improve iTunes music discovery tools  to help get listeners beyond the short head - much less into the long tail. Apple didn't do much to help us find music on our own iPods - an iPod becomes the place where a song goes to die - 60% of songs on a typical iPod have never been listened to by its owner. One would think that this inattention to the music space would leave Apple a little vulnerable - perhaps that's what Microsoft thought - perhaps that's why Microsoft barely tried with the Zune.

Tuesday Jan 02, 2007

Search Guy Steve Green and his niece made a new word:  achelbow

Monday Jan 01, 2007

Frédérick Giasson has published a first version of the Music Ontology Specification.   The goal of this ontology specification is to provide main concepts and properties for music on the Semantic Web.  The Music Ontology is expressed as an RDF/XML specification. 

The current specification lists 19 classes such as Album, Artist, EP, Soundtrack, Track, Type and 50+ properties that apply to these classes.  The classes and properties are based solely on the class, types and relationships defined by the MusicBrainz project.

Frederick has set up a Google mailing list for folks to provide comments and suggestions for the ontology.


During the holiday break, I actually cleaned my office. One of my resolutions for the new year is to keep my office clean all year.  Here's the photo of record to serve as a the baseline for future cleanliness tests.

Friday Dec 22, 2006

The masters of the smooth song at transition at The Echo Nest  have put together a 10 minute version of the Christmas classic by stitching together  of 50 different versions of Jingle Bells.  Some of the transitions in the clip are really quite amazing - better than a human could do - of course the computer has the advantage - not only can it align the songs and manipulate the faders like a human can do - it can also time stretch or compress a song to force it to align - something that even the best turntable master would have a hard time doing.  Some of the song alignment techiniques  are described in chapter six of Tristan's thesis.

I hope that Echo Nest opens up for business soon - the song transition technology that they are pioneering will be an important distinguishing feature for them.  I've listened to many hours of automatic radio - shuffle play on the iPod, as well as the streaming recommender radio stations like Pandora or - and have grown weary of the 'iPod whiplash' that comes from these systems.

Thursday Dec 21, 2006

Pandora - the content-based music radio based on the music genome has added a whole set of social features that allow their users browse the tastes and listening habits of other Pandora users.  All the details about the social upgrade can be found on the Pandora blog 

Wednesday Dec 20, 2006

Techcrunch is reporting that Ticketmaster is pouring over 13 million dollars into iLike for a 25% stake in the music discovery venture. That puts the value of iLike at 52 million dollars which is not bad considering that the iLike site has only been live for a few months.  I have no idea how many users iLike has, but I don't think they've acquired a huge number in the last couple of months.  Right now iLike is telling me that there are about 250 iLike users that are online or 'listening now!'.  If that is one percent of the total active listeners that gives iLike 25,000 active users. If we use  $38 per pair of eyeballs as a metric for what a site is worth -  the 13 million dollar investment means that Ticketmaster thinks that iLike will be growing that set of 25K users to 1.4 million users in the near future.  Maybe so - but if so, it can't be because of iLike's recommendations - I continue to be underwhelmed by them - they are continuing to recommend 'the chipmunk song' - they don't tell me why they recommend it - but it has been there since day one. Today's new recommendation is 'in the name of love' by U2 - not exactly a fresh new track to add to my collection.  iLike's strengths are their deep pockets (which just got deeper) that lets them launch an effective marketing campaign,  a sticky iTunes plugin that keeps users 'visiting' the iLike site every time they use iTunes, and their extensive Silicon Valley connections that give them good press in sites like TechCrunch.

Monday Dec 18, 2006

Rumors are circulating once again of the impending opening of the Amazon MP3 Store. This time, the rumors are even more interesting.  The Hypebot says that the Amazon store will only sell non-DRM-laden MP3s and will sell them at a variable price.  I'm really looking forward to seeing what Amazon will do in this space.  They are known for their recommendations, customer reviews  and all sorts of other nifty things in order to help hook their customers up with their content.  If Amazon opens an MP3-only store and they offer a strong catalog they could give iTunes a run for their money. (via the digital music weblog).

Jason has started things building the Ultimate Music 2.0 directory at  It's a wiki, so anyone can jump in.  It seems we need to think a bit about how this is going to be organized ... but it doesn't hurt to be bold and just start adding stuff.  We can figure out how to organize things once we have a bunch of data.  So all of those folks who indicated that they'd be willing to help should head on over to wetpaint and starting contributing.


Friday Dec 15, 2006

One of the most frequently used music samples of all time is the 'amen break' - a 5 second snippet of a drum break performed by Gregory Cylvester Coleman  in 1969.   The wikipedia entry has an excellent history of the amen break and use - but to really get a feel for the amen break it is best to listen to how it is used. tag radio helps here.  There are 23 songs tagged with 'amen break' - users  can listen to them here: lastfm://globaltags/Amen%20break

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