Challenging Apple in a key market is like challenging Shane Cameron to a street fight: inadvisable unless you’re heavily armed, and even then, probably not a good idea.
And no market is more key to Apple than music; while it may be fading into obscurity now, the iPod paved the way for the company’s 21st Century resurgence, creating its slick, sexy image and preparing consumers for the iPhone and iPad which followed it.
With it all the way has been iTunes, the music player launched in 2001 which allowed users to manage their music and, later, purchase it directly via the iTunes Store. Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced in March last year that there are 200 million people around the world with iTunes accounts. That number has no doubt grown, especially with iTunes Match, a syncing service that offers access to your iTunes collection in the cloud, launching just last month.
Even so, a few music players have sprung up that offer a new model for consumers: instead of selecting and paying for a few specific tracks, users pay a monthly fee (or submit to regular ads) and have unlimited access to a huge number of tracks, all located in the cloud.
As far as I can tell the first to try this model was Rhapsody (please correct me if I’m wrong), but the first to bring it here launched just a few weeks ago in the form of Rdio.
Pronounced are-dee-oh (think funky droid), Rdio is a subscription service offering 12 million songs via a web browser or desktop app for one monthly fee, as well as via a mobile phone app for half that fee again.
On the desktop, Rdio features an iTunes-esque toolbar, offering, from left to right, skip backward, play/pause, skip forward, volume, track info, and search. The only difference is a couple of buttons controlling the playlist (or ‘station’) in the place of the buttons which control the view in iTunes.
Below this is where it gets interesting, though, as Rdio invites users to explore the many ways in which its tracks can be browsed. As well as searching manually you can match the track list from your iTunes or Windows Media Player, browse new and popular albums and a list of recommendations based on the other tracks you’ve been listening to, or find people to follow, by searching or linking with your Facebook friend list.
This is where Rdio has the most to offer; if you can build up a network with similar tastes it’s a great way to find new music and give it a try without having to invest money in a recommendation that may turn out to be way off the mark. It’s obviously the point of difference Rdio bosses Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom – the Scandinavian pair behind Skype and Kazaa – have chosen to accentuate; the ‘Getting Started’ section informs you that following people is the best way to find music, a feed of friends’ recent activity is the second thing you see on your home page, and Rdio has even partnered with Facebook on music sharing feature, Listen With.
In keeping with the digital music trend that favours songs over albums, Rdio does not lend itself to just choosing from your collection and hitting play. Users are encouraged to cobble together playlists and share these around; and, if you can’t find people to follow, you can always follow ‘influencers’ (“They know what’s cool first” – yeesh). At times it feels like more of a music-themed social network than a media player, and that’s pretty cool.
I’d hoped that for all Rdio’s social intelligence it would learn to stop offering me music out of keeping with my taste; sadly, this was not the case, and any time I would go to browse aimlessly I would first have to pass Justin Bieber’s Under The Mistletoe, averting my eyes and praying for my immortal soul as I went.
My biggest gripe, though, is that despite the promise of 12 million tracks, there’s simply too much stuff missing. There’s no Led Zeppelin, no Metallica, and no Beatles. In other places collections are patchy, with old albums available but new ones, like Primus’ Green Naugahyde and The Black Keys’ El Camino and Brother, for example, not on offer. It’s a rights holder issue, so not Rdio’s fault – as a representative told me, no other local or global streaming service has these tracks either (at least, not legally) – it’s just a downside of the format compared with the standard pay-as-you-go model. I suppose it’s my punishment for listening to dinosaur music; another user could have a completely different experience, and at any rate, there are still 12 million tracks, with new ones added every day, plus there’s a 7-day free trial period so it’s easy to give it a go and see if the fare is to your liking.
With full band and album descriptions courtesy of Rovi, the ability to sync to mobile to spare your data allowance, and extremely satisfactory sound quality, Rdio is definitely worth a try. The web service is $8.90 per month, and web plus mobile is $13.90 per month. Go here to check it out.
Our review of the Rdio mobile app is up now – go here to have a read.