When is Internet radio not Internet radio? When it’s a music service or programming guide. That’s one of many problems with Internet radio, nobody seems to understand what it is, which means marketing messages are confused and confusing. But the market leaders are finding success in spite of themselves with music service Pandora boasting a subscriber base of 45M; competing service provider Slacker claiming 15M; and programming guide supplier RadioTime reporting 40M listening sessions/month and rising.
Pandora has captured the imagination of car makers and the creators of automotive infotainment systems. Both Ford and QNX have announced plans to bring Pandora to in-vehicle solutions.
Nearly everyone in the automotive industry considers Pandora to be so-called Internet radio. Even Pandora calls itself Internet radio, but, in fact, it is a music service, not unlike Napster and Rhapsody or even iTunes. Note that no one would normally refer to Napster, Rhapsody or iTunes as Internet radio services – yet they perform many of the same functions of Pandora.
The point is important to understand because there is a battle for the ears of listeners “trapped” in their cars. Today, these ears have more choices than ever before including traditional AM and FM, satellite radio, digital radio, recorded content (disc-based and digital) and streaming content from music services, podcasts, and, yes, Internet radio. And Internet radio is presenting an emerging challenge to music service providers.
With vehicle connectivity being enabled via broadband and narrowband technology embedded or carried-in, consumers have access to virtually the entire conceivable spectrum of live and recorded content. The newest arrival, following Pandora’s debut, is RadioTime, an Internet radio programming guide.
RadioTime arrives on the scene just as engineers and programmers are facing the monumental challenge to enable access to these services and their content. The objective is to organize and manage that content in an intuitive manner that can be easily and attractively communicated to consumers.
The challenges are formidable. Slacker, a music service that competes with Pandora, claims millions of songs for a library 5x the size of Pandora’s and based on direct relationships with the “labels” responsible for the music. Slacker’s content is packaged in 120 genre stations and 10,000 artist stations.
Both Slacker and Pandora have their own strategies for packaging their music offerings, with Pandora’s based on the increasingly ubiquitous thumbs up/down approach in contrast to Slacker's stations. And neither of these companies possess the licenses necessary to operate outside the United States and Canada - even Pandora is not available in Canada.
This is where RadioTime comes in. RadioTime, the Internet radio programming guide selected by BMW for its Mini integration, provides access to 65K Internet radio stations from around the world. And the access to those stations is global, which helps to explain BMW/Mini’s choice.
For in-vehicle delivery of these new music experiences the first steps are apparent in the latest iterations of Microsoft Auto which provide for song look up by voice regardless of source. QNX has also shown Internet radio integrations though generally focusing on Pandora – a lead that has been followed by Tier One suppliers (and QNX customers) such as Visteon, Continental and Denso, all showing their Pandora solutions at recent trade events.
The importance of BMW/Mini’s RadioTime announcement revolves around the fact that RadioTime is a programming guide for Internet radio and is NOT a music service. RadioTime offers one of the first radio programming guides, focused as it is on Internet radio, yet it also includes non-Internet radio sources such as traditional FM and digital radio. RadioTime’s competitors include Reciva and vTuner, which have comparable offerings on a much smaller scale and lack regular FM or digital broadcast content.
The only element missing from the RadioTime proposition is the personalization capability that distinguishes Pandora, Stitcher and others (ie. the thumbs up/down aspect). But RadioTime does uniquely offer localized content with local stations broadcasting audio and text in the local language.
It is still early days in the Internet radio and music service business as far as automotive and mobile app implementations are concerned but there are already dozens of mobile applications available for nearly every mobile platform. For music services the business model revolves around subscriptions, paid downloads and advertising. The business models range from free (often with advertising) to paid (without advertising) and include sales of music and other access privileges such as caching or "skipping" songs.
The major music services are Slacker, Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify, iTunes and Napster. The major programming guides are RadioTimes, Reciva, vTuner and Radio Locator. The available Internet radio stations include: iHeartradio, RadioParadise and a host of individual and bundled stations ultimately encompassing the entire 65K stations available worldwide. Mobile radio apps include Flycast, Stitcher, Radiolicious, and WunderRadio amidst a long and growing list.
Most listeners enjoy these services over their personal computers or televisions but a growing population are accessing content via mobile devices and, soon, will be plugging into Internet music sources via embedded systems. For now, though, car makers are preferring to maintain an arms-length relationship with these services by enabling access via a customer’s own phone and data plan. To achieve this requires either streaming Bluetooth connectivity via A2DP access or a hardwired connection.
Slacker stands out in this crowd as offering a third path of storing content for later play instead of streaming, not unlike some of the portable satellite radio devices currently available. Slacker can be streamed or cached, giving it a unique advantage in the market. Despite this unique position, though, Slacker has yet to garner any visible design wins in the automotive market, though it is available on most popular smartphones.
Ultimately, the market will favor low-cost Internet radio and music service solutions. This means that the battle today is between content aggregators such as RadioTime, Flycast, Stitcher, vTuner and Reciva and their ability to compete or co-exist with music service providers. Whatever the outcome, drivers with smartphone applications stand to benefit handsomely.
For additional insight see:
CES 2010: The Arrival of Converged Automotive Multimedia Products - John Canali - http://bit.ly/9gq4yo
Automotive Bluetooth: Profile Strategy Key to Infotainment Success - Mark Fitzgerald - http://bit.ly/9qEXbU
Internet Radio: Ready for Prime Time - Mark Fitzgerald - http://bit.ly/ZBXzd