iTunes Radio, after much chatter and speculation, has finally gone live as a feature in Apple Inc.’s new iOS 7 operating system, which also featured a new configuration of iTunes itself.
After spending several hours downloading the update from Apple’s overworked servers, we evaluated the product against Apple’s marketing statements. Many reviewers have already commented on the app’s instability (it crashed several times on us, too) and slow response. We’ve chalked that up to temporary launch day issues that will soon resolve, giving Apple the benefit of the doubt as it struggles to update hundreds of millions of devices at once. We’ll also compare iTunes Radio against its rivals in a separate story in next week’s Billboard. For now, let’s take a look at how iTunes Radio delivered on its own promises.
The Promise: “You’ll have access to more than 250 DJ-curated and genre-focused stations — including everything from Hard Rock to Doo Wop, all with crystal-clear sound quality. Your stations evolve based on the music you play and download.”
The Delivery: iTunes Radio has the major bases covered, but its categories and genres are broad and not very inspiring. Indie Rock, for example, leads listeners to eight stations including Indie Pop, Indie Electronic, Indie Alt-Folk and so on. There were a handful of exceptions such as App Gamer Radio, which plays game soundtracks. But the other stations are fairly standard categories rather than fresh ways to organize and curate music.
The Promise: “It’s easy to create and customize stations based on whatever you want to hear.”
The Delivery: Apple’s strength in designing a good user interface shines through with its radio feature. The experience of creating stations is brain dead simple – just hit the “+” button, type in a genre, song or artist, and you’re on your way in three quick clicks. You can also add nuance to your custom stations by adding more additional artists, making your own house blend to suit a quirkier taste.
The Promise: “You can listen to iTunes Radio on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, PC, and Apple TV. All your stations are stored in iCloud, so if you stop playing a station on one device, you can pick it up on another — no syncing required.”
The Delivery: Apple was able to seamlessly sync settings created on one device to iTunes Radio on other devices. But it wasn’t quick enough to do the “pick up where you dropped off” trick. We started created a Pink Station, which played Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason” on our iPad, picked up the iPhone to see if it would continue playing the song. It didn’t. Instead, it started with another song entirely, The Fray’s “You Found Me.” It did, however, show that we had created the station a minute earlier.
The Promise: “iTunes Radio makes it easy to get songs out of your head and into your library. Just check your History for a list of everything you’ve heard or added to your Wish List.”
The Delivery: This promise involves two features – History and Wish List. History keeps a running list of the songs you’ve listened to. This is great if you wanted to revisit that track that you heard a few minutes ago when you had your hands full with, say, driving and wanted to check it out later. Same goes for the Wish List. Hear a song you like? Add it to the Wish List. You can come back later, listen to a sample of the track to make sure it was the same one that caught your ear earlier, but not the entire track. For that, there’s a buy button right next to the track name so you can purchase it from (where else?) iTunes. The idea is solid, but the execution was not. Many of the songs we listened to did not show up in the history, or showed up much later. Remember that Pink song? iTunes Radio didn’t.
The Promise: “Whether you’re in the car, working out, or just hanging out, you can ask Siri on your iOS device to play what you’re in the mood to hear.”
The Delivery: Poor Siri. There’s no shortage of snarky Siri satire on the Web, including some self deprecating humor from Siri itself. But its batting average, while fairly good if Siri was a baseball player, is just a hair short of practical for smartphone functionality, including as controller for iTunes Radio. Siri performed well when asked to play, pause and resume. But it was unable to create new stations or discern whether one wanted to listen to music on a station on iTunes Radio or from your iTunes library. A request to “play Pink radio station,” for example, led to iTunes playing Pink from the library. Then there were the usual misunderstandings between me and Siri – “Play Katy Perry” led to a Cat Power song. Sigh. As for the literal promise of playing music I’m “in the mood to hear,” a request to “play music for working out” yielded an apology from Siri, “I couldn’t find ‘for working out’ in your music.”
The Promise: “As the world’s most popular music store, iTunes has access to thousands of new songs every week. And you’ll hear some of that music on iTunes Radio before you hear it anywhere else.”
The Delivery: iTunes Radio debuted with an exclusive single from Katy Perry’s upcoming “Prism” album. It also features music from Apple’s recent iTunes Festival in London. We couldn’t find other exclusives, however, and Apple has not yet responded to a request for a list of other iTunes Radio exclusives. With all music services having access to essentially the same catalogs, there’s very little to differentiate them. Exclusives are one way. Apple is in the catbird seat when it comes to wrangling exclusives from artists. Its dominance as a music retailer gives the company significant leverage, should it wish to exercise it to bolster its radio product. So while there may be few exclusive music now, this could easily change.
The Promise: “With iTunes Radio, you can easily share stations via AirDrop, Mail, Messages, Twitter, and Facebook.”
The Delivery: This is straightforward enough, and Apple has delivered on its literal promise. When you pull back to look at the reasons for sharing – virality and social engagement, this feature seems quite shallow. Unlike Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and other music services that have incorporated social functionality, there’s no way on iTunes Radio to follow your friends, see what they’re listening to, comment on it or otherwise have a conversation around music. It remains to be seen whether simply emailing or Tweeting a custom station will drive new listeners.
Grade: A for technical delivery, C for social engagement.
Grade Point Average: 2.5. iTunes Radio, on its first day, is a middling student with great unfulfilled potential (how much did you hate hearing that in high school?). While the service excels at customized radio, does well at servicing genres and sharing, it needs improvement in history, cross-device usage and, as is widely known, in Siri’s communication skills