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iTunes Radio: What’s the big deal?

iTunes Radio screenshotApple’s first foray into online radio shipped last Wednesday as part of the latest version 7 of its iOS mobile operating system. The big question is: What’s the big deal? Or, rather, Is it a big deal?

After using the service for four days I have to conclude that iTunes Radio is a big deal, but not for the usual Apple reasons.

iTunes Radio is not innovative. It is derivative.

The iTunes Radio user experience is adequate, not the best in class.

So what is the big deal, then?

The big deal is that iTunes Radio just shipped to millions of users of the most popular smartphones in the US, and will ship to new owners of the just-released iPhone 5s and 5c, which likely also will be top sellers. In essence Apple has positioned itself to be one of the top streaming radio platforms in the US right upon entry.

More importantly, iTunes Radio will be on the smartphones of millions of people who have never used an internet radio or music service. For many of these folks iTunes Radio will be the first, and only, such platform they use.

The other big deal is more subtle, but critical. Unlike every other competitor, the iTunes Radio revenue model is not about subscribers. It is about buyers, and growing the iTunes Store.

Sure, other radio and streaming music services give you the opportunity to buy songs as you listen. But none of those services is connected directly to the biggest music retailer in the US–the iTunes Store.

iTunes Radio is Apple’s move to plug a hole in its online music offerings. While iTunes offers previews in the form of 30 second clips and some advance streams of full songs and full albums, it’s not a great discovery platform because you really can’t dig into a wide array of full songs and albums without buying them. Up to now, users who wanted a better discovery experience had to head to Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody and the like. With iTunes Radio now they don’t have to.

iTunes Radio also provides additional incentive to buy its iTunes Match cloud service. Rather than offering iTunes radio for a separate monthly fee, Apple simply bundled it as an extra to an already extent service. iTunes Match allows a user to replicate her entire iTunes library in the cloud, whether the songs were bought from the iTunes Store or ripped from CDs. Now a $24.99 a year Match subscription gives you an ad free Radio subscription, too.

Note, however, that iTunes Radio does not offer any on-demand listening like paid versions of Spotify, MOG, Rdio or Slacker. In this way it remains more like Pandora. This isn’t by accident. It’s because Apple still wants you to buy the songs and albums you really like and want to hear on demand.

iTunes Radio, then, just provides a new way for you to hear songs and albums that you might want to keep, and then makes it easy for you to purchase them right away, or later, via a wish list.

This service is not targeted to steal away customers from other platforms. Paid subscribers to Pandora, MOG or Slacker are unlikely to abandon their investment of money and customization for Apple.

Instead, Apple is making the bet that the audience for an online radio service–and buying digital music online–is significantly larger than it is now. The company is predicting that the millions of iPhone users out there who don’t yet use a radio or streaming service will check out iTunes Radio first. And that many will never try another service thereafter.

To make this gamble pay off Apple doesn’t have to make iTunes Radio ridiculously great, nor does it have to steal away users from other services. It just has to make a product that is ubiquitous for its customers, and is good enough all around.

I will post a more thorough review tomorrow. But I can preview now that iTunes Radio pretty much succeeds in being good enough. It might even qualify as pretty good.


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6 Responses to iTunes Radio: What’s the big deal?

  1. Sarah Moore September 23, 2013 at 5:55 am #

    I have doubts about how much this service could possibly amp up music downloads, I mean, it goes against the principal of what’s going on. It’s like a last ditch effort that already failed, but Apple feels the need to do it anyway. I hope it doesn’t work. I hope it doesn’t damage the decent services out there like Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, Torch music and so on that built themselves up to be good services, not a tool to sell a totally different product.

  2. Mike "ex-genius" Kelley September 25, 2013 at 7:17 am #

    I’m one of those “never used music streaming services before iTunes Radio” and yet after a few days I found it to be a frustrating and irritating experience (I quickly ran out of skips because no matter what I tried the stations created were pretty horrible). And I’m an iTunes Match user.

    So I tried Pandora — and was so immediately impressed by how great the stations were that I could easily create. So I’m going to pay for Pandora One because it’s worth the price to get rid of the ads.

    This is one case where Apple drove me into the arms of a competitor — probably not their intention but I have no doubt it will happen with others. As you’ve implied, iTunes Radio’s agenda is just for you to buy from the iTunes store. As such they aren’t interested in providing you with music you already know and love, and the way they curate the stations show that clearly. But it ain’t gonna work, at least for this user.

  3. matt norton September 26, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    I am trying out iTunes Radio for the first time . Been listening for about two hours now and only skipped a few songs. Typed in one do my favoright bands and got a great mix of new and favoright songs. I have tried pandora, and last fm. last fm was a big disopointment as the free trial ran out before I got the hang of the system and it put some really hored crap in with my music. I used up most of my trial listing to my own music as they recommended to help get it into rotation and assist with similar artists. Pandora has come along way and was my companion through some long hospitalizations but at home I really don’t touch it. I am part of a generation that still buys music, both back catoloug and new. being a musician my self I have no problem supporting a musician who puts out quality music that I like. I don’t like the idea of paying to listen music I would much rather use that money to buy another classic album that I grew up on. I like the ability to put songs on a wish list and purchase it on the fly. I am always looking for new music but I usually listen to the song several times on youtube or other free streaming service before I purchase. I am always misplacing my CDs so backing them up in the cloud is a tempting proposition when bundled with commercial free radio, though, I would like to see it succeed on it’s own as a free service. Now if they offered a music club that gave us so many credits a year to buy new music plus streaming radio that would be something, kind of like the old tape and cd clubs.

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