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Transmissions from the Past: Radio and Email on Mobile Devices

Apparently, along with trying to change who gets paid when the music gets played, the National Association of Broadcasters is lobbying Congress to require FM radio receivers to be built into phones and other mobile devices. I’m sure this is in part a reaction to the rise of streaming music apps like Pandora and the Public Radio Player, but they want FM receivers in not-so-smart phones too.

Compare this with how we in the email industry got email clients into everyone’s phones. I clearly remember attending a party in Oakland somewhere in 1999 or 2000, where a woman nonchalantly checked her email on a Palm VIII at about 4 in the morning. No wires, not even wifi—we were truly living in the future. Today, even though it’s supposedly almost dead, email is expected on any device capable of anything more than changing ringtones.

But this didn’t come about because of some email consortium lobbying Congress. It happened because people wanted it. People who buy and use mobile devices. I don’t know for sure, but it seems very unlikely that these same people—who are a much larger group now—are asking for FM tuners.

Me, I still like radio. I’m lucky enough to live in a region with a ton of interesting stations, both commercial and non, so I have a fairly high-end AM/FM receiver at home along with the standard radio in my car. I’ve also got various devices for streaming audio over the internet, and a cable to plug my iPhone into my car stereo.

One of the stations I listen to most often does offer FM and AM broadcasts, but they’re about a thousand miles from where I live. So I listen online. I listened to the stream when I lived closer, too, because there was always radio interference from the rail yard down the street.

Similarly, there are multiple ways to check email. For me, it’s now most commonly on my laptop or my iPhone. Sometimes I’ll still ssh in and use mutt. There are services that’ll read email over the phone, or send it by FAX, though those seem silly now.

Facebook messages are email, too, or close enough for most users—and that’s also checked from my laptop or my iPhone. Same with Twitter, and so forth. The email industry isn’t lobbying Congress to require Facebook to process email; there’s no need.

It’s not the broadcast technology that matters to users. It’s the content. And if one method of transmission/access is reduced to only carrying uninteresting content, we’ll stop using it.

Even lacking FM receivers, mobile devices aren’t killing radio. They simply offer an alternative way to hear more interesting content, while old-fashioned broadcast radio in most markets offers no alternatives at all.

For decades, live broadcasts were restricted to AM and FM, VHF and UHF, various cable providers, a skyful of satellites, newer digital channels…hmm. Actually, the venerable broadcast industry already knows how to provide content in multiple ways. They’ll come around to the internet (including the mobile internet) eventually. The question is whether their audience will wait.

We don’t have that problem with email. So long as there are people using email to communicate with each other, email will survive—no lobbying necessary, but lots of room for innovation. It’s not the technology; it’s the content.

(Kind of a funny message for a technology blog, huh?)

This article was originally published on Return Path’s Received: blog.

By J.D. Falk, Internet Standards and Governance

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