The Next Year in Music Technology

A look at 2012's most promising advancements

iCloud
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks about new features of the iCloud service during an event at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, California.
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Despite digital music’s hyperkinetic evolution in 2011, the new year looks set to usher in even more high-tech advancements that will extend streaming, online and downloadable tunes’ reach in increasingly innovative ways.

Among 2012’s most promising upgrades for audiophiles are cutting-edge smartphones and tablet PCs, plus software programs and cloud services that capitalize upon connected gadgets’ ubiquity. Group and social listening platforms are anticipated to make larger strides in coming months, as are motion-controlled video games and wireless payment processing solutions. But for those laying bets, acoustically-inclined downloadable apps of every flavor, including both free and paid options, appear a clear frontrunner as tomorrow’s top headlining act. Credit a growing selection and an increasingly near-universal presence on computers, cell phones, eReaders and home theater devices of every flavor, from Internet-ready TVs to WiFi-enabled Blu-ray players.

Out of the gate, cell phones supporting high-speed 4G networks, which deliver speeds roughly three to four times faster than current 3G standards, are expected to fuel growth in the digital music market by enabling faster downloads. Pairing immediate access to online storefronts and individualized song purchases with the convenience of a portable jukebox in your pocket, handsets like the HTC Vivid and Samsung Epic 4G Touch are becoming more affordable. Subscription services including Rhapsody, MOG and Rdio should expect a boon in sales, and they should also benefit an ever-broadening range of streaming online song solutions such as Last.fm and Pandora.

Devices that support WiFi and 3G connections are expected to continue captivating more listeners, too, both through access to Internet-ready archives like MyMusicCloud, or all-you-can eat wireless song plans like Muve Music. Tablet sales are expected to quadruple from 15.7 million units sold worldwide in 2010 to 81.3 million in 2012, per industry watchdog eMarketer. Coupled with the over 440.5 million mobile devices that market research firm Gartner says were sold in the third quarter of 2011 alone, cloud music services appear primed for a boom, given listeners widening access to connected mobile hardware.

Increasingly supported across popular devices such as the iPad 2 and Kindle Fire, solutions such as iCloud, Google Music and Amazon Cloud Player merely represent the first wave of content rainmakers. By this time next year, music lovers should enjoy numerous options for storing tracks on remotely-located computer servers, then beaming songs and albums down on-command over the Internet via tablet, cell phone or Web browser. Alternative services like Subsonic, mSpot and Grooveshark are already queuing up. Interestingly, many streaming services provide a readymade delivery and playback platform that customizes music discovery and listening apps, including video games and interactive artist tributes, and can expand upon using interlocking software toolkits. Beyond simulated instruments and virtual teaching tools, possibilities will soon extend to customized apps for social networking or sharing video dedications that piggyback on feature-rich services like Spotify and The Echo Nest.

From Web applications which let you use crowdsourced suggestions to plan party playlists to tools that automatically complete unfinished compositions, song queuing possibilities are quickly expanding, too. Limited only by amateur and licensed professional developers’ imaginations, a multitude of new ways for repurposing one’s digital music collection will soon exist. Similar to the way the App Store freed bedroom coders to create original applications in all categories, so should burgeoning support for third-party music applications on multiple platforms empower sonically-inclined inventors. An added bonus, growing support for creations on streaming media extenders, television sets and other connected home theater electronics provides will provide access to an increasingly large and receptive living room audience.

Music’s interactivity is also expected to grow by leaps and bounds in 2012, and not just by way of customized apps such as those offers by acts like Björk and the Roots. Thank video game makers, who are expected to look to more dancing games, e.g. Just Dance 3, and mobile diversions like TubeHero, which repurposes iTunes songs as finger-tapping rhythm-based challenges. Hoping to fill the void left by Guitar Hero and Rock Band’s departure, set-top outings are anticipated to lean away from realism and expensive instruments and more towards motion control solutions in the immediate. With a growing emphasis being placed on Nintendo’s Wii and upcoming Wii U motion-sensing systems, Sony’s wand-like PlayStation Move controller and Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 (which tracks full body movement), idle thumb-waggling is rapidly becoming stale. As evidenced by the success of titles like Dance Central 2, expect actual hip-shaking amusements that demand you hoist yourself up off the couch and onto the dance floor.

From AirPlay-enabled wireless speaker systems to applications which let you turn spoken phrases into catchy little ditties with backing beats, options for buying, playing and interacting with digital music are clearly growing. Grab your headphones (celebrity-branded models being an additional popular recording industry crossover area): in 2012, the rising tide of new apps, gadgets and online services will become an unstoppable flood.

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