Wednesday, September 13, 2006

My Gadget Wish List: The Pandora MP3 Player

Pandora recently announced a new line of mp3 players custom designed to take advantage of Pandora's unique method of personalizing music. Until now, Pandora listeners have been limited to listening to Pandora through their PC's, but now subscribers can take their personalized radio stations along with them. The new mp3 players will feature the same interface as the web version of Pandora to enable subscribers to fine-tune their station any time they want.

The new players will sync with the Pandora service and download hundreds of songs based on customized radio stations created by the user. The user can decide which songs to keep and remove as well as which will help further fine tune their stations. All the downloaded music will be protected using Play For Sure DRM technology to enable the user to hear unlimited music while preventing unauthorized copying.

Pandora also announced a new line of subscription plans to go with the new hardware. Users can choose plans that enable limited control of downloaded tracks (songs would play in the same radio format used by the Pandora web player) or more expensive plans that give the user full control of the downloaded tunes.

Ok, so it's only wishful thinking but how cool what that be? With all of the press that the iPod gets (alright, already...we get it. It's the best mp3 player out there.) not enough attention is being placed on the other mp3 players out there. This seems especially true of the ones that are compatible with DRM technology that allow for all-you-can-eat subscription-based downloading plans. It seems the main argument comes down to buying and "owning" one-off songs vs. paying a monthly fee for the right to play any song any time you want.

For some reason, a lot of people just don't see the value in the subscription plans and would rather purchase the limited rights to a song as if they were adding it to their permanent collection of albums and CDs. As many of the people that purchase these 99 cent tracks simply fill up their mp3 player without bothering to backup (those DRM restrictions can be a pain!), they most likely don't realize that that particular file is probably not going to last anywhere near as long as those albums in their attics. File formats change, DRM technologies come and go. So unless you are burning that tune to a CD, it's just not going to last.

Maybe the subscription services just haven't found a way to set themselves apart from iTunes. You have to admit that most of the subscription service sites still feel like record stores where the streams are just a way to get you to plug down the $$ for the actual downloadable file so you can jam out AWAY from your PC. Even the sites that allow users to download files from their subscription plan onto a compatible mp3 player don't seem to be offering a very unique or attractive service. For most users, the glamour of the iPod outweighs any actual musical capabilities offered by these alternative players.

And maybe that's the thing. Obviously, the ability to play any one of over a million tunes at any time you want is damn cool. And being able to select from the vast cornucopia of modern music when filling up your mp3 player for the week is pretty damn cool as well (especially when selecting songs you'd never pay a buck for but you fall in love with nonetheless). But the companies that offer these services and the compatible players have to take it up a notch to attract the 99 cent download crowd to cross the divide.

That's why I'd like to see the Pandora MP3 player. I love Pandora. I listen to it all day long and am constantly amazed of the quality of the recommendations on each of my fine-tuned stations. And when I sit in my car, I wish I had the ability to load up Pandora and escape from the mind-numbing crap that fills the dial of commercial radio. Give me a player that loads up music I've never heard before as well as tunes it knows I like and I'll be a happy camper. What the heck are we going to do with 60gbs of hard-drive space anyway? I'd much rather let Pandora fill it up so that I can experiment all day long then leave it waiting empty for the next Radiohead album to come out.

And toss some crazy Pandora controls right on the hardware. Who needs a jog wheel when you have those big ol' thumbs up/thumbs down icons dressing the front of your player. Is there a more intuitive or simple interface than that?

I'd just like to see some of these new music sites and hardware companies experiment a bit. I'll plug down twenty or thirty bucks a month for the rest of my life if these companies would really give my mp3 player 24/7 access to the all the music in the world as well as a personal music recommendation assistant to guide me through it.

Rhapsody DJ

I've been using Rhapsody now for almost three years. I love the service and have grown quite accustomed to the subscription-based music model. It helps that I spend a lot of time each day in front of a PC as it gives me lots of time to appreciate the all-you-can-listen service. I haven't yet tried the extended service which would enable me to download tracks to an mp3 player as the player models that work with the service are still too limited. For example, I would love to download the tracks to my Audivox Smartphone but the Windows Mobile operating system on the phone is not compatible with the requirements of Microsoft's Play For Sure DRM.

I've especially liked some of the newer features that Rhapsody has added over the last year, especially the ability to post and download playlists through Rhapsody's "Playlist Central". Through this feature, I can access thousands of other playlists generated by users all over the world. The search functionality is lacking, though, as it can be quite difficult to search playlists for a particular track or artist or find similar playlists to one you might particularly like. It's also a bit difficult to gauge the quality of each playlist, even though users have the ability to rate each list on a scale of 1 to 5.

It can be a bit aggravating knowing that there are some great playlists out there and users putting a lot of thought into them, but being unable to easily locate them. In addition, even the great playlists lack much personality as users have very few ways to personalize the lists other than to add a catchy title and short description. Users do have the ability to add text descriptions for each track, although the feature seems to be used only sporadically.

This whole thing comes down to another company not taking advantage of the social network that has developed around the site. Here we have thousands of users who all have access to hundreds of thousands of songs but very limited means for sharing what they find as well as locating other users who share similar musical interests. Whenever a site has a large following but lacks the tools to enable users to communicate with each other, other sites develop to serve this need. In this case, there are a few decent Rhapsody playlist-sharing sites out there. But most of these are edited by a small group of users who push their playlist selections out to the masses. In other words, there is still only limited interaction. But users search out these sites simply to find some guidance to help sort through Rhapsody's massive musical library.

So, when Rhapsody starts working on Rhapsody 3.0 they should strongly consider adding some improved social networking and sharing features to the site. Just a few unique tools should greatly improve the usability and functionality and help Rhapsody challenge iTunes a little more. Here's what I'd like to see...

1. Improved Playlist Functionality. -- First off, give users better tools for searching existing playlists. If I find a particular playlist to be good, give me the ability to easily find other playlists by the same author as well as notification tools to let me know when they release a new playlist (RSS!!).

2. Rhapsody DJ -- I'd also really like to see some tools that would enable the author to DJ their own playlists by adding audio commentary between tracks. It would be very cool to enable Rhapsody users to run their own radio shows. Just enable users to record audio commentaries that could then be uploaded to the site and placed between playlist tracks. You could even let listeners decide whether or not they want to hear the commentary using the same skip controls they use to navigate tunes through the site. I think this would really help personify some of the playlists as well as encourage users to extend their use of the playlist functionality. Just look at the popularity of some of the sites that offer this kind of functionality like live365. Again, RSS could be used to inform listeners of new shows.

3. Expose the Tail -- One of the reasons that Pandora is so popular is that it introduces users to music that they would probably have never found by themselves. Based on the user's feedback, Pandora mixes in both popular songs as well as songs by bands that don't have anywhere near the same reach as the big, popular bands. But Pandora's unique recommendation system recommends songs with similar musical characteristics as those the user likes regardless of their popularity. Rhapsody should take advantage of its huge library to offer similar services to its listeners. Rhapsody users have the added ability to bookmark these songs or create their own playlists from their favorites as they hear them.

There is quite a lot of potential stored up in Rhapsody. New API services that enable developers to integrate Rhapsody song searches and other features may help to push the boundaries of the existing Rhapsody service. Hopefully, Rhapsody will push these features even further into the social networking realm which can only be an improvement.

Tech(nology) Ev(olution)

The creation of this blog represents the acceptance of the fact that my grand plan of starting a successful online business just hasn't come to fruition. This domain name is six years old and I've run through dozens of potential ideas without actually "starting" any of them. It's not that the ideas are bad, in fact, I think many of them had a legit shot or at least would have provided a decent learning experience. It's just that I don't have the will to do all of the other work (anything unrelated to the conception of the idea itself) needed to kick off a start-up.

I always figured I'd partner with that perfect business partner who had all of the business skills but lacked the good ideas. I had a couple of friends and colleagues who had potential, but it just never worked out. There were always great lunch conversations around starting up a business and great ideas of how we could make loads of cash with the next big thing, but something else always came up. Friends got promotions at work, went back to school, moved or were more concerned with their own cool ideas.

It's not that I've entirely given up the idea of starting something up. I just need to give myself a real break from thinking that I'm wasting valuable time by not coding this next big thing RIGHT NOW! Seriously, if I sit down to watch the Phillies struggle to stay at .500 so they can win the wild card, I get mad at myself for not working up a plan of attack for getting these crazy ideas onto a web server. I don't even play videogames anymore for the same reason. It's just maddening sometimes.

I think I've also come to the realization that what I really like is simply coming up with the ideas and discussing them with my friends. I've always enjoyed discussing the potential pros and cons of some crazy web idea and working out the details only to have the idea tangent into something completely unrelated but ten times cooler. I've found that some of my best friends became my best friends simply because we were able to bounce these ideas back and forth and turn the discussions into really fun and memorable conversations.

Anyway, I thought that instead of giving myself headaches for not putting these ideas into action, I'd just write them down here and shoot them off to the world instead. Even if I'm the only one who reads them I can say I actually did something with the idea instead of keeping it locked up inside the ol' brain safe. I even think it would be just as cool to see someone else run with the idea and do something with it themselves.

Let's call it an open-source idea mill. Share the ideas with the world and see if anything decent can come from any of them. Who knows?