History has proved that predicting the direction of a technology is a very hard thing to do. The general rule seems to be that a technology will, after contact with a large set of variables evolving together, such other technologies, contact with early adopters and culture, find new use cases. The examples are numerous.
Thomas Edison thought his phonograph would be used mainly to record last-minute bequests of the dying. The radio was thought to be the ideal device for delivering sermons to rural farmers and the Internet was planned to be a disaster-proof communication backup. None of these were right, but I think we can agree they found their use case and worked out pretty well.
That’s the reason I’m a bit frustrated every time I see someone being overly skeptical about audio sharing services. Particularly SoundCloud comes to mind, which seems to be very well positioned. The skeptics’ arguments are usually something like; there’s no money to be made in music, people are not excited about podcasts, sound is not efficient compared to text or video is more compelling. I think these arguments demonstrate either a lack of vision of what the web can (will) become, too much focus on existing media forms and use cases, or an underestimation of timing (don’t want to be too harsh though :-).
The web has so far been very silent and I’ve been thinking about this for around two years. I think the web in many ways can be seen as an extension of our senses, so to me infrastructure for ubiquitous sharing of sound is a very logical part of the web. And, with the wildfire adoption of sophisticated mobile phones and the increasing speed of mobile broadband at a more affordable price, it has become even clearer. Just as mobile cameras are the extension of our eyes, the speakers and microphones in our mobile phones will be the extension of our ears and voices. Also one should keep in mind the growing number of new instruments and tools for music creation and potentially a range of machines that either can or need to transfer sound to humans (speculating a bit here…).
Sure video can deliver a combination of sound and images, but sound alone is different. Sound will be an important part of new emerging media forms. We will see a rich variety of new art forms and genres, and audio will no doubt play an important role. Not to forget that the number of people making music is growing and also that sound has the potential to make the web more accessible.
However, I’m sure there are at least hundreds if not thousands of other use cases for audio in many aspects of our lives and across or within fields that might not even yet exist. Only in a comment thread that has been active for a couple of days you can see some interesting ideas. All of them unrelated to music.
Timing is obviously an important factor. None of those building infrastructure for sound on the web today might be getting it exactly right. Most likely they aren’t. However, there’s a fair chance they will figure it all out as they evolve. Regardless, at some point ubiquitous sharing of sound will happen, and as a result we will have a better and more interesting web.