SiliconFilter

As More Cars Get Connected, Are the Days of Radio Coming to an End?

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For better or worse, our cars are slowly turning into Internet-connected gadgets. Chances are that by the time the 2015 models arrive, virtually every new car except for the most basic models will be able to connect to the Internet in some form. Unless the carriers decide to cap our downloads a 200MB, it's a safe bet that streaming media will take a good chunk of market share from good old radio and the days of the morning zoo drive time shows may (thankfully) be coming to an end. Today, quite a few drivers use their phones to stream music to their cars already, but overall, this is still a minority.

Connected Cars are Going Mainstream

As CES this week, one trend has clearly been towards brining more entertainment content to the car over the Internet.

Here are just the announcements from yesterday: NPR and Ford announced a partnership yesterday. HARMAN's Aha platform is being adopted by Honda and Subaru and also features content from partners like NPR, MOG, Slacker and others. Pioneer's Zypr platform will power Scion's BeSpoke connected infotainment audio system (PDF).

Today, Ford is also announcing that mobile streaming app TuneIn is now compatible with its SYNC AppLink platform. This will give drivers with compatible cars and phones the ability to choose between 50,000 AM, FM, HD and Internet-based radio stations and close to a million on-demand programs ready for streaming. All of this, of course, can be controlled by your voice or with the buttons on your steering wheel.

Also announced at CES: streaming radio service Slacker just turned on its long-announced (but somewhat delayed) partnership with ESPN. Slacker also lets you play news programs at the top of the hour, so if you use this service in your car, you won't even miss the news. Given that the car itself can probably pull in traffic data anyway (maybe with the help of the newly announced Scout.me service), chances are you won't even miss the old-fashioned traffic reports as your car will route you around traffic jams automatically.

Some forms of radio will probably be around for a while, especially talk radio, but it's hard to imagine that too many drivers will still be tuning their radios to any channel in a few years from now – but you will tune in by clicking on your car's or your phone's touchscreen. No dial needed.

Image credit: Flickr user Night_Owl

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12:00 pm


As Music Gets More Social, is Apple Getting Left Behind?

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When I opened Spotify on my desktop this morning, a pop-up informed me that “Spotify Loves Social” and that I should discover “great music with [my] friends.” To get started doing just that, all I had to do was click “Get Started.” Spotify also conveniently pre-checked the opt-in to Facebook’s new Open Graph feature. I’m not sure most mainstream users will understand that opting in to the pre-checked Open Graph option means that all their listening data will not just be forwarded to Facebook, but that their friends will likely see everything they play on the Facebook ticker as well. As Spotify now forces its users to have a Facebook account, chances are quite a few people will sign up for this “service” unwittingly.

No matter what you think about this, though, it’s clear that the future of music is social. Facebook has partnered with everybody who is anything in this business, including Spotify, Slacker, turntable.fm, iHeartRadio, MOG, SoundCloud and Rhapsody. The one exception: Apple.

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As Cult of Mac’s Mark Elgan rightly points out, Facebook – at least in the music world – “has become not just a competitor to Apple, but the Mother of All Apple Competitors.” Apple, of course, has Ping, its own music-focused social network. Ping, however, is not a huge hit and whereas Apple couldn’t even get Facebook to agree to let its users export their contacts to its own social network, though, the world’s largest social network was more than happy to work with all of these other streaming music services.

If Ping were a huge hit, this wouldn’t be a problem for Apple, but Apple’s social network is neither very social nor very active these days. Indeed, one has to wonder if Apple itself is still thinking about it much, as it hasn’t seen any major updates since its launch.

Two Trends that Could Hurt Apple: Social Music and On-Demand Streaming

Two trends are converging on Apple here that could unsettle it as the leading online music provider in the long run: social music and on-demand streaming. As on-demand services like Spotify, MOG and Rdio slowly gain traction (both with their paid and free tiers), users may just decide that they don’t want to buy music but prefer a monthly flat-fee that costs less than the price of a single album instead. Couple that with Apple losing out in social, and it’s clear that some people over in Cupertino must be starting to get worried. So far, Apple hasn’t been able (or willing) to offer a flat-fee plan and its social initiatives haven’t caught on, either.

Elgan argues that Apple needs its own social network for its music and entertainment business to succeed in the long run. Maybe that’s true, but I would think that a closer partnership with the existing networks – be that Facebook or Google+ – could help the company to get into the social music game. Users have pretty much reached the saturation level when it comes to new social networks. At this point, partnering is a smarter move than building your own, especially if social networking isn’t part of your core competencies.

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4:09 pm


Spotify Rocks the Desktop, Fails on Mobile

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Spotify, the streaming music service which arrived in the U.S. to great hype and scarce invites earlier this week, may be one of the more frustrating companies to review. On the desktop, it offers the single best user experience of all the current streaming music services available in the U.S. today and easily bests its direct competitors like MOG, Rdio and Rhapsody. When it comes to the mobile experience, though, Spotify simply falls flat when compared to its competitors’ apps.

On Mobile, You Want to Listen to Music, Not Manage Playlists

The problem with this, in my view, is Spotify’s insistence on building its service strictly around playlists. This works great for creating shared playlists and discovering new music by browsing your friends’ lists, and it’s even a decent experience for just listening to music on your desktop. This approach, however, doesn’t quite work so well on mobile. When you are driving down the road, you don’t want to have to organize a playlist before you get started. Instead, MOG, for example, offers a hybrid on-demand/radio approach similar to Pandora, where you can choose one song to seed your playlist and then have MOG pick the rest of your list based on this. Spotify doesn’t have this kind of mode.

Spotify on Mobile: Frustrating

Indeed, Spotify doesn’t even make creating playlists on your mobile device easy and instead of giving you easy access to all your local cached files, they are somewhere in your playlist menu – some under the “starred” label, some under “local files.” Why which file is where it is, I’m not sure. The playlists themselves then are organized in alphabetical order by song title, but there is no way to browse by artist or album.

MOG, on the other hand (the Spotify competitor I’m most familiar with), offers a stellar mobile experience where the search feature actually autocompletes your queries (unlike Spotify) and where your cached files are easily accessible. While you can manage different playlists, the focus is on one central play queue. Want to add a song to it, just hold your finger over any song, wait for the menu to pop up and decide whether you want to play it next or add it to the end of the queue. Back buttons are where you expect them to be (top left instead of the “hide” button that often has the same functionality in the Spotify app – and which sits in the top right corner) and switching between song, album and artist views couldn’t be easier.

At the end of the day then, Spotify makes for a great desktop app, but most of my streaming music experience is mobile in the car or at the gym – and MOG simply beat Spotify there.



5:01 am


Everything You Need to Know About Spotify’s U.S. Launch (Updated)

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After years of rumors, Europe’s favorite streaming music service Spotify has launched in the U.S.

What is Spotify?

Spotify is a streaming music service that offers on-demand music streaming. Unlike customizable Internet radio services like Pandora, Spotify allows you to pick and choose exactly what songs you want to listen to. Spotify offers a catalog of over 15 million songs.

There are currently a number of similar services in the U.S., including Rdio, MOG and Rhapsody. What makes Spotify stand out is that it also offers a free, ad-supported version, while most of its competitors only offer short trials before users have to pay.

How Can I Get it?

Spotify is now open for business, but you either need to be deemed an “influencer” to get a free accounts or get a paid account (more details about those below). To see if you qualify for an invite, head over to Klout to see if you qualify.Klout is giving away about 100,000 free accounts this way. Just enter your Twitter or Facebook credentials and Klout will let you know if you qualify.

If you are willing to pay, you can skip the line and get an account at any time. If you want to wait for a free account but didn’t qualify for the Klout promotion, just give Spotify your email address and they will let you know when a space in the U.S. beta opens up.

What’s so Great About it?

A couple of things make Spotify stand out from its competition – besides the free tier. First of all, Spotify features a strong social component. Users can share playlists with friends or subscribe to other users’ public playlists (and see updates to these in real time). MOG offers a similar feature, but it’s severely limited in comparison with Spotify’s implementation. Spotify also integrates with Facebook and lets you discover what your friends are listening to on the service.

Spotify also offers great native clients for both Windows and OS X, as well as mobile clients for virtually all the major platforms, including iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Symbian and the Palm Pre series.

Spotify uses a peer-to-peer architecture similar to Skype that uses a little bit of space on its users’ computers to cache popular songs and a little bit of every user’s bandwidth to serve these songs to nearby users. Thanks to this, songs play immediately, just like you would expect from your local iTunes library.

Talking about iTunes, Spotify also gives you access to your iTunes library right from its own app, meaning you don’t have to switch back and forth between the two.

Brilliant, But What Does it Cost?

Spotify offers a three-tier pricing structure:

Free: the free version will be limited to 20 hours of use for the first six months after a user signs up. After that, the limit will become 10 hours per month. No song can be listened to more than 5 times.

$5/month (Unlimited): the basic paid plan gives users unlimited, ad-free access to Spotify’s full library on the desktop.

$10/month (Premium): this plan includes full desktop access, as well as mobile access (which includes offline caching on the mobile device) and access to higher quality audio streams at 320 kbps (all songs are encoded in the Ogg Vorbis format). One important perk of this plan is also that you can use the service abroad for more than 14 days. In Europe, Spotify also often allows its premium users to get early access to some albums before they become available to other users.



3:44 am


Cosmic Panda: YouTube Gets an Experimental New Look

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YouTube, the world’s most popular video streaming site, just launched a new experimental design that brings a fresh look to virtually every part of the YouTube experience, including videos, playlists and channels. The new look, called Cosmic Panda, introduces a darker look, with an emphasis on black backgrounds that make the videos stand out more than the white backdrop YouTube has been using since its earliest days.

previews_youtube_pandaBesides the darker background, Google has also changed the way it displays video thumbnails by making them larger. This means you will see fewer suggested videos per page, but the images will likely make to click on more of them in the long run. The new design also sports a few new interface elements, including buttons that allow you to change the size of the video player without changing the video resolution.

To join the Cosmic Panda experiment, just head over here and opt in (to opt out again, just go back to the sign-up page). Google is also actively soliciting feedback with the help of a prominent button on the left side of the screen.

Google, of course, has been on a redesign spree lately, including major changes to the look and feel of some of its most well-known products like Gmail, Google Calendar and even its search engine.

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4:25 pm


Cloud Drive: Amazon Launches its Online Music Locker and Cloud Storage Service

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Amazon just launched its rumored online music locker project. Dubbed the Amazon Cloud Drive, the service will actually do more than just store your music. Besides supporting music – which is clearly the main focus here – the 5GB of free storage space on Amazon’s servers that come with every Cloud Drive account can also be used for documents, pictures and videos. Users who purchase one full MP3 album on Amazon before the end of the year get 15GB of additional free storage for a total of 20GB. Extra storage on top of the 5/20GB free tier costs $50 per year per additional 50GB of storage space. The Cloud Drive is currently only available for Amazon customers in the United States.

New music purchases from Amazon are automatically saved to your Cloud Drive. To upload your existing music collection, you have to install the Amazon MP3 uploader, which is based on Adobe AIR and is compatible with Macs and PCs. Besides a web-based music player, Amazon also offers an Android app for streaming your music from the online locker while you are on the go.

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The Cloud Player, which runs in your browser, allows you to play back any music you uploaded. You can also create new playlists. You can not, however, edit any of the information attached to your files. So if Amazon can’t identify an album or artist based on the MP3 tags, it will simply organize it under “Unknown Album” or “Unknown Artis” and won’t allow you to change the name.

Overall, the Cloud Player is pretty straightforward, though limited. There is no advanced playlists feature, for example, or the ability to organize your collection by anything else but song title, album title, artist, genre and time.

To get started, you need to install the Cloud Drive software on your machine at home and start uploading your music. The files are stored – with their original bitrate intact – on Amazon’s S3 service. The service will accept any DRM-free MP3 file.

Putting Pressure on Apple and Google

The Cloud Player feels quite similar to Lala, the streaming music and music locker service that Apple acquired last year. Most pundits expect Apple to launch a music locker for its Mobile Me service soon. So far, however, Apple has not made any announcements about this yet. The company’s new data center in North Carolina, however, is likely the central piece of infrastructure that Apple needs to complete before it can offer a service that will compete with Amazon’s new offering.

It’s worth noting that other companies, including MP3Tunes, have been offering a similar music locker service for a while already and that besides Apple, Google, too, is rumored to be working on a similar service.



10:04 pm