Back in the days when dumbphones reigned supreme and Napster duplicates like LimeWire still existed, Apple changed the entire landscape of downloadable music. It did this through its potent combination of iTunes music management software and the explosively popular iPod, along with an unbeatable pricing scheme of 99 cents for (most) music tracks. This combination of convenience and savvy pricing made buying music almost as painless as stealing it – and it thrust Apple headfirst into the content business.
Today, the company aims to capitalize on its longstanding dominance of the mobile music scene with a new feature called iTunes Radio. The app will allow users to stream songs over the air from thousands of artists over a variety of customizable “stations,” and it promises to “learn” over time, adapting to a user’s preferences and delivering an ever-more-refined listening experience. The free version will feature occasional ad placement, but a subscription to its paid alternative eliminates these advertisements.
If that all sounds familiar, it should – Pandora has been doing it in one form or another since 2005, and the newer Spotify also incorporates similar functionality. Very little about iTunes Radio appears new or improved over existing options on the market.
“Very little” does not mean “none,” however; there are a few crucial differences between Apple’s new offering and third-party music-streaming apps. Chief among these disparities: iTunes Radio provides a much more seamless purchase experience for those who want to immediately buy the track they’re listening to. While it is possible for a user in Pandora, for example, to buy a currently-playing track in iTunes, the experience isn’t as seamless as the one offered by iTunes Radio. In Pandora, a purchase button jumps the user over into the iTunes app. In iTunes Radio, you’re already in iTunes – meaning you can also see the price of the track before you pull the trigger.
There’s also the matter of compatibility with the entire Apple ecosystem. iTunes Radio will work with the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Apple TV, and the desktop version of iTunes for both OSX and Windows will support it as well. If it works as advertised, the experience will transfer between incarnations seamlessly.
But cross-platform functionality is something that Spotify and Pandora already offer – and other assets, like album art and fullscreen playback, are similarly nothing new. The ability to control iTunes Radio through Siri is a nice touch, but it’s certainly not a game-changer.
The real win for Apple with iTunes Radio is something so simple it seems almost trivial to mention – but though elementary, this asset is the only one that stands a chance of making the new service stand out. That distinction is this: iTunes Radio will come pre-loaded on the next iPhone, and presumably any other device running iOS 7 and later.
In a world that’s grown intimately familiar with the concept of the on-device app store over the past five years, such an asset might seem passé. “So what if the software is included out of the box?” is the natural question. “Most people delete that boatware and install their own apps anyway.” And indeed this is true – for people like the publishers and readers of Pocketnow.
But there is still a large contingent of users out there that relies, first and foremost, on the software that comes installed out of the box. And it’s not too much to assume that a large portion of that user segment uses iPhones – considered by many to be the simplest, easiest-to-use smartphones out there. For these people, venturing into the App Store is “advanced activity,” and if they learn that an on-device app already provides the functionality of a third-party title like Pandora, they’ll more than likely stick with the stock app. An app which already offers tight integration with the iTunes software many people already use to manage their music.
iTunes Radio isn’t important because it brings new features; aside from a few touches like music exclusives and the aforementioned Siri control, it doesn’t. It’s more important because it paves the way for Apple to regain some of the ground it’s lost to third-party content providers over the years. From the hardcore users of the Apple-only ecosystem to new smartphone inductees afraid of the App Store, iTunes Radio will likely prove a potent alternative to the incumbent players in the streaming space. And while providers like Spotify and 8tracks offer enough to set them apart -the former via its unlimited subscription model, the latter via distributable playlists- it’s probably the beleaguered veteran Pandora that has the most to fear from Apple’s latest offering. We’ll have to wait and see what the final software looks like before we judge just how much danger Apple is placing its competitors in – but from our current vantage, we’d say there’s quite a fight brewing come fall.