Leapfrog or Lag? Music Tech in Developing Markets

We have been conditioned to think that developing nations are somehow privileged to have the opportunity to skip whole generations of technologies, moving straight to what we in developed economies are embracing because of its promise for the future.

Here’s the Economist, writing in 2008:

The mobile phone is also a wonderful example of a “leapfrog” technology: it has enabled developing countries to skip the fixed-line technology of the 20th century and move straight to the mobile technology of the 21st. Surely other technologies can do the same?

The full article is here, and despite the common sense conclusion, that sometimes new technologies are dependent on a whole set of building blocks that might not be present, it reflects a prejudice against the past that only the rich can afford.

Another example, from an arbitrary blog:

The internet is growing in India, and most of it is on the mobile phone.  Many, perhaps most of the world, will access the internet only on their phones.  They are skipping the PC and not even blinking or thinking twice.

So how important is the mobile OS market?  It will rule the digital world sooner than you think. (the rest here)

On a visit to Vietnam in 2008 I too was struck by the way that the mobile phone had become the ubiquitous and essential tool for business, and for all the normal traffic of life. But there was something else too. Computer shops came in two types, one familiar from poorer shopping streets in developed countries, with components and a few low end desktops and laptops, second hand and repairs. The other type presented top end tower systems in perspex cases, objects of aspiration and desire.

Market research site iSuppli sees this same pattern in China, with the PC being the aspirational home media centre for emerging middle class households.

…the PC appears to be winning as the main source of evening entertainment in China’s households—for playing games, reading, watching videos, listening to music, communicating and emailing, as well as shopping.

The fact that we are excited about our smartphones and tablets, and are devoting less attention to our two year old home PCs, should not lead us to assume that a broadband connection and a PC would not therefore seem like the apogee of well equipped home life in countries where it has so far been unattainable for the vast majority of families.

So perhaps when you have had a fully connected and well equipped home for ten years the next frontier might be mobility. Ordinary families in developing economies might prefer to catch up with the rich, rather than go without the benefits of the last decade of connected home computing.

For music this means preserving what we have learned about music on the PC, about downloads and home media servers, and about a more social and versatile approach to delivering music. It might well mean multiple modes of acquisition, including peer-to-peer, for much longer than seems likely in developed countries. Synching with cheap and portable MP3 players would be much more important than music through the cloud to smartphones and tablets.

In fact, while the CD remains a mass market music product, we see in some developing markets all the conditions that fed the growth of Napster, but on a far larger scale. The disutility of a music subscription service, tethered inconveniently and expensively to an account and a limited number of devices, seems to be less exciting a vision of the future than the idea of ‘leapfrogging’ suggests. I suspect, given a choice, many of us would happily leapfrog right back to 1999. Maybe in China, Latin America, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many other countries there will be more of an incentive to embrace and develop with the market rather than fight it this time around.

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