When iTunes Radio was unveiled at Apple's WWDC event last week, it didn't seem to stir up a lot of buzz, and at first blush it didn't seem like Apple was doing anything terribly new. However, iTunes Radio could be a real contender if Apple plays to its strengths and doesn't trip over its own feet in the process. Here's why iTunes Radio could be really awesome, if Apple lets it shine.
Whether it's great or an also-ran, Australians will have to wait a while before finding it. The service will initially be US-only, but (as with iTunes music sales and movie rentals and iTunes Match cloud services) we should see it eventually.
iTunes Radio could be great...
iTunes Radio isn't the subscription-based 'iRadio' that some of us were hoping for, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered: "Why aren't we more excited about this? It's a solid streaming radio service, and it has great potential." The trouble is, Apple did a terrible job of communicating that potential. Apple largely glossed over the service in the keynote, but here are the basics:
- iTunes Radio is a free, ad-supported streaming radio service. You'll be able to create and customise stations of music you'll enjoy by choosing a song in your library, a song in the iTunes Music Store, or by starting a featured station suggested by the iTunes Music team.
- iTunes Match subscribers will enjoy the service ad-free. If you're already an iTunes Match user, there's nothing else to pay and no ads either.
- You'll get (reportedly) unlimited skips, and you can tweak the station by selecting "play more like this" or "never play this again". That's not terribly new or special — every internet radio service lets you thumb up/thumb down songs to tweak the songs it selects — but it wouldn't be a complete package without it.
- iTunes Radio will improve the quality if your stations based on songs in your iTunes library and what's available in the iTunes Music Store. This is huge, actually. Apple puts it like this: "Your stations evolve based on the music you play and download. So the more you use iTunes Radio and iTunes, the more iTunes Radio knows what you like to listen to — and the more personalised your experience becomes." It would be great if there were a Genius tie-in here, but I'm speculating. The important thing is that iTunes Radio will draw from your library and the iTunes Store, and use your listening habits in both places to build your stations.
Most streaming radio services have options like these, but what makes iTunes Radio a real contender is that last detail the fact that iTunes Radio will leverage your existing music collection and playback habits. Google is trying to do something similar with Google Play Music All Access, but Apple's dominance in the digital music retailing space gives it an interesting edge.
There are other useful features too — Siri integration, a full play history (clearly aimed to encourage you to buy songs you've played but can't get out of your head, and the ability to tune stations from "popular" to "discovery," so you can choose to head more popular tracks or more unknown songs.
...if Apple plays to its strengths...
So far, iTunes Radio looks like a solid — if astonishing decent — streaming music service. Does it blow its rivals away with extra features? No. Could it be a serious contender? Yes, but the reasons why aren't things you'll find on a spec sheet, or even on Apple's promo page for iTunes Radio. iTunes Radio could be really, really good, if Apple plays its strengths and doesn't treat this like a hobby, or a service being checked off on a product list because everyone else is building one. Here's what we mean:
Apple has the biggest digital music store on the planet, and therefore the biggest database of not just what people like, but what people are willing to pay for. If Apple leverages this database in its selection algorithm, it could be a serious rival to the Music Genome Project which powers services like Pandora, or the custom algorithm that powers Spotify's radio feature. Apple doesn't just know what you play (thanks to Genius, assuming you're opted in), but it knows how you've rated songs, what you've actually been willing to spend money on, and what you already own. All of that data is a massive potential advantage, and if iTunes Radio uses it (and its massive music catalogue) to build better radio stations, that could be a killer feature.
We don't know if Apple is planning to use its own data or rely on a third-party service. It has done both in the past, but its integration of external data has not always gone well (think: Apple Maps). So we hope Apple chooses the DIY route — it could mean a better wheel in the end.
Apple has a massive installed base of users. Love it or hate it, iTunes isn't just the biggest music store in the world, it's also one of the most commonly installed applications on any operating system. As well as iPhone and iPad users, Apple will also have Apple TV owners and every Mac and Windows system with iTunes installed on it as potential customers. You won't even have to install anything new — just update what you already have.
With a gentle nudge to try iTunes Radio once it's available, Apple could hook a lot of people. The only people who'll miss out are those of us who absolutely refuse to use iTunes at all, and Android users — I highly doubt Apple's willing to bridge the divide the way Google is.
Feature-wise, iTunes Radio sounds OK. If Apple brings all of its guns to bear on the project, it could be fantastic. You're already hearing pundits pan the service based on its features. I perked up when I saw that Pandora's corporate communications team spun into action after the announcement, arguing that iTunes Radio was only "on par" with other existing offerings. Why would Pandora — which really doesn't need to come out swinging — go on the attack like that? Part of it is healthy competition, of course, but part of it is the fact that iTunes Radio will ultimately be cheaper than its rivlas, including Pandora, and if Apple takes this seriously, it could mean trouble.
...and doesn't screw up (again).
Note that we've said that for iTunes Radio to be a success, Apple has to take it seriously. Apple has played with the streaming music market before and failed miserably — and iTunes Radio is already lacking features that people really love in other services. Apple will have to step up its game in order to make this a success.
iTunes Radio is completely lacking social features. We're not saying it needs to suggest songs based on what your friends like — we have a billion services that do that already, and only a handful of them do it well. However, people like following each other on Pandora or sharing songs they've liked on Twitter and stations they've created with friends.
One of Spotify's greatest strengths is the fact that it's so social. It's hooked into Facebook, collaborative playlists give you and your friends interesting songs to listen to all day, and Spotify's own radio feature does a decent job of offering up suggestions. Even Google Music All Access' new radio takes the concept a step further by giving you complete control over what songs play next, and lets you share to Google+. Apple iss not on great terms with Facebook or Google, but The Verge reports Apple is already playing nicely with Twitter #Music. One thing is clear — people love to talk about and share music. Apple needs to accommodate that.
iTunes Radio needs to be front and centre, and well-curated. iTunes has a radio feature. Some of you may even use it regularly — it's mostly a catalogue of internet radio stations and Shoutcast broadcasts. I hope it doesn't go away, but it's not exactly front and centre right now. If the new iTunes Radio slips into the background and becomes just another menu option, it's doomed, like Genius — a thing that's there in the background that people who love it use, and everyone else kind of ignores — or heaven forbid, Ping. Remember Ping? If Apple says "here you go!" and runs off to the next project, iTunes Radio will be quickly forgotten.
Apple has been known to roll out new projects, forget about them, let them die on the vine, or just generally mess them up because they want to compete with other companies that are already doing it better but won't dedicate resources. If they do that this time around, there will be be no reason for someone who already loves Pandora or Spotify to give it a whirl, much less spend money on iTunes Match or new music from the iTunes Store — which, let's be honest, is the final goal here. If Apple takes it seriously, they can drive sales further, and the rest of us can enjoy some great new music in the process. We'll have to wait until it launches to see what Cupertino chooses to do.