Imagine for a moment that Apple offered you an invitation to a very special event: an opportunity to hear any song — every song, maybe — from nearly the entire iTunes catalog. Where would you start? How long would it take before you ran out of ideas and felt ready to stop? Would there be anything Apple could do to make the experience less like hunting through millions of boxes in a warehouse, and more like relaxing in a music store alongside a friendly, endlessly helpful assistant?
For roughly three years, Swedish startup Spotify Ltd. has had the opportunity to think through this scenario as it planned and launched a streaming music service as the latest rival to the iTunes Store’s music section. Spotify launched in Europe in 2008, and planned a U.S. arrival last year. Much was made of Apple’s reported efforts to stop or slow Spotify before it arrived in the United States, but beyond the words “streaming music,” very little of what the company was actually planning to offer made a dent on U.S. customers. And although it launched here last week, Spotify has made things considerably worse for itself by debuting in America with a confusing iPhone and iPod touch application, Spotify (Free*, version 0.4.15), and an oddly cartoony web site. Here’s the story in a nutshell.
If you’re an iOS device user and download the iPhone/iPod touch app first, you’re probably in for a major disappointment. Spotify on iOS is completely locked down, beginning with a username and password screen that doesn’t even provide a link to sign up for an account on Spotify’s web site. Assuming that you weren’t turned off by that experience, you’ll have to figure out to visit Spotify.com, sign up for an invitation, and then wait for the company to allow you to get a free account. The free account will have limited value for iOS users—more on that in a moment—but will entitle you to use a computer, not your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, to stream any of Spotify’s claimed 15 million tracks on demand. With ads. If you pay Spotify $5 per month, the ads will disappear. For $10 per month, Spotify will let you stream songs on demand to your iOS device, too, albeit without a proper iPad interface. It will also improve the audio quality to whatever the highest level is that’s available from its library, which is a mix of 96kbps, 160kbps, and 320kbps Ogg Vorbis files.
Spotify’s $10 monthly pitch may sound familiar: Slacker is just one of a handful of companies that are now offering $10 monthly subscriptions for on-demand access to their music catalogs. Spotify may seem to have a huge advantage here, with a catalog that’s nearly twice as large as Slacker’s claimed 8 million tracks, and similarly bigger than Rhapsody’s and Napster’s. For some users—particularly ones who intend to use Spotify on their iOS devices and desktop computers at the same time—the sheer number of tracks will be a major draw, and conspicuously missing only holdout artists such as The Beatles and Metallica, with others varying by country.
Another draw: load Spotify on your Mac or PC the first time after getting an account, then load the iOS app, and Spotify will automatically identify all of the tracks in your iTunes library that are in Spotify’s streaming library—like Apple’s upcoming iTunes Match service, but better. With a free Spotify account, you can wirelessly sync iTunes-located tracks to Spotify-registered devices using the Spotify app. A paid account lets the iOS app stream any Spotify-matched song from your iTunes library to your mobile device, over a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. So even if you have only a free Spotify account, your iTunes library can go significantly wireless without any need to upload your tracks to Spotify, assuming you’ve installed Spotify’s computer application. While our playlists were filled with perhaps 30-40% unlocatable tracks, that’s 60-70% of tracks that did work without any effort on our part, and good reason for Apple to be concerned about Spotify. Or better, to emulate it.
But for others, including us, something huge is missing in Spotify, and that’s a proper music discovery system. Regardless of whether you have a free or paid account on the service, the iOS application starts out one step shy of extremely user unfriendly and, with a paid account, graduates up to merely underdeveloped. Once you’re through the “how do I get an account” issues—which feel akin to arriving at an empty restaurant only to be told that you need to go outside, make a reservation by phone, and then return only when called back—you’re dumped into the app with little more than a search tool and a handful of recent and recommended tracks.
As appealing as 15 million songs may sound in concept, the absence of any sort of iTunes Genius-like recommendation system, Slacker Radio-style instant “Station” creator, or similar alternative leaves you to hunt yourself for music to hear. Even the Mac app, with much longer, internationally sortable lists of popular tracks, feels like you’re dead-ending after each song or album: after playing what you want, you need to figure out what’s next. Once you’re out of ideas, you’ll start wondering whether it’s really worth paying $10 a month for the service.
A few other issues include the current app’s instability, complete with fairly numerous crashes during playlist creation and occasionally during playback, the lag it experiences when trying to load high-quality tracks on mobile devices, and the uncertainty as to whether the track it’s loading is actually high-quality or not. And some offsets include a “Share Track” feature, which lets you quickly create e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter links to songs that friends with accounts can use to listen for free, and an “Available Offline” switch, which makes syncing tracks to your device for repeated listening as simple as flipping a swirled metal on-off switch. Spotify also supports AirPlay playback, albeit only if you tap on the album art to find the hidden AirPlay icon and select a device. For all of its flaws, Spotify does merit some praise for focusing on doing a few things well, and handling complex tasks so invisibly in the background that you won’t even know that they’re going on.
Unfortunately, what it does well isn’t currently enough to merit a general recommendation to iOS users, given all of the additional work that the app needs. Bug fixes to stop the crashing and improve the performance of high-quality streaming will be easy. An introduction screen that points directly to account sign-up options and provides a nicer walk-through of the app’s features should have been no-brainers in an initial release, and will need to be added in a free update. But adding a proper way to explore the vast music library without feeling overwhelmed will require considerably more thought, and probably more time. For now, Spotify is indeed a challenger to the iTunes Store, and to on-demand streaming music services such as Slacker Radio, but it falls considerably short of its potential due to feature omissions that range from easily remedied to broad and large. We look forward to seeing whether Spotify addresses all of these issues, and if it does, we may re-examine the app in the future. Until then, we’d sooner recommend Slacker Radio’s subscription service, which does more with less.
Company and Price
Company: Spotify Ltd.
Price: Free (optional $10/month subscription)
Compatible: iPod touches, iPhones, iPads*