Wednesday December 30 2009

Towards a web of music

My last post on Playdar was a little misleading. Playdar isn’t really a browser. It’s more of a search engine. But can you imagine using a web browser today that didn’t have Google built in? The idea of a browser goes hand in hand with that of a search engine; in my efforts to relate the two I may have blurred the waters.

I’d like to talk a bit more about what the web looks like today, and how we can make it friendlier to the idea of a music browser.

The substance of the web

Whether you’re searching, browsing, subscribing, sharing, discussing, listing or rating the stuff of the web, the fundamental building material and currency remains the same. The hyperlink.

On the web, links are our frames of reference, our scaffold, our signposts and our stamps of approval, and without them, we lose the ability to navigate, to reference ideas, and to lend credibility to our sources.

Links define the browsable structure of the web, and search engines work by parsing and making sense of this structure.

The limits of browsers

Part of why the web has grown so large and varied is down to the loose definition of its structure of linked URLs. HTTP defines URLs as resource identifiers; pieces of information that reference a thing and describe how to read it.

These resources can represent anything at all, and browsers interpret them according to their content type. The most common of these on the web is HTML, and through codecs, web browsers also understand MP3, FLV, JPEG, etc.

But browsers don’t really handle these secondary content types as well as they handle HTML. They don’t really need to. HTML has grown the ability to embed them. It’s the publishers who decide how images, sound and movies are presented, but they have to be snuck in under the trojan horse of markup.

HTML’s flexibility has allowed for a useful degree of creative control, but at the expense of introducing complexity that corrupts HTTP’s promise of raw content delivery. You can’t just point to material at the tip of a URL and hope that it will reach your audience. You have to serve it up with tag stew so that browsers can digest it properly.

Interop

So far, this has led to a web of control, with content centralised in the hands of publishers. The distribution of creative works is stifled, not thanks to the protective instincts of rights holders, but more as result of a careless muddling of formats. And it’s this sloppy integration of multimedia into the browser that ensures we’ll be mired in codec hell for years to come.

But we have made progress towards extracting meaning from the mess of markup. The success of RSS and Atom as syndication formats is an encouraging victory for linked data, and structured enclosures are a marked improvement for embedded media and metadata.

But can we do better? Can we create an ecosystem for browsing, subscribing, sharing, discussing, listing and rating the stuff of the web that’s separate from HTML? Music is an obvious area of opportunity, and we’ve already got music browsers that have escaped the gravitational pull of the browser. The problem is, they’re still locked into the publisher’s web of control. The iTunes Store and Spotify represent bold new ways to access a wealth of music, but they’re essentially blind to a world of sound outside their borders.

I glossed over the issue of rights before, and that’s obviously one incentive to remain walled in. A technology gatekeeper can guarantee your commercial interests are safe. But there are other solutions to licensing, commerce and rights authorisation, not just web-based but baked into desktop software.

I’d love to see a browser that treats all the music that’s on the web today as a first class citizen, with built in identification, authentication and payment systems that don’t encumber music formats directly. Only then can we rely on the universal property of the URL to link together all our activity and interest around music. Only then can we start to build a web that’s native to music.

I’d like to talk more about what the web of music might look like but I’ll leave it there for now.

Comments welcome via email or Twitter