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Rhapsody and the iPhone meet without drama

September 10, 2009 | 12:30 pm

RealNetworks, Rhapsody, iPhone, monopoly, restraint of trade, music subscription services, iTunes So much for the Apple-as-monopolist meme: Rhapsody, the music-subscription service co-owned by RealNetworks and Viacom, is now available on the iPhone, where it can compete with the iTunes store for a share of music fans' wallets. Last month Real announced that it had submitted the Rhapsody app to Apple for approval, and some observers darkly warned that Apple would give it the Google Voice treatment rather than facing the competition. But it zipped through the approval process, winding up in the iPhone App store last night. According to PaidContent.org's Staci Kramer, who gave it a quick test Wedneaday, the new app integrates seamlessly with the Rhapsody mothership. It's so good, Kramer says, she'll probably hang on to her Rhapsody subscription for a while longer.

As Kramer's comments suggest, my guess is that this app will have more value to Real as a customer-retention tool than as a recruiter of new subscribers. It was silly to think that Apple would be frightened of Rhapsody, despite the high quality of Rhapsody's library, its online jukebox and the tools it offers to help users find and play unfamiliar tracks and artists. That's because Rhapsody is an audio entertainment service, not a music-collection-building tool like iTunes. The $15 monthly fee buys users access to a fantastic set of titles, but it doesn't let them keep any. And Steve Jobs has repeatedly argued that music fans want to own, not just listen. (The numbers seem to bear him out; except for Naxos' classical music offering on college campuses, it's hard to discern much growth in the total number of customers for music subscription services past the few million they've had for several years.) Apple is so comfortable with that assessment, it previously approved two music-listening apps at least as powerful as Rhapsody: Sirius XM, which offers scores of radio channels, and Spotify, a free, advertiser-supported music-on-demand service available in England and Europe. 

In fact, if Jobs is right about music fans, Rhapsody will help Apple by introducing users to more songs that they'll want to buy. And unlike the PC version, the click-to-buy button on Rhapsody's iPhone app leads directly to ... the iTunes store. (That's probably why Apple finally included FM tuners on its iPods -- it developed a song-tagging feature that makes it easy for people to buy songs they hear on the radio.)

iPhone 3GS image courtesy of Apple

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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