Rdio updates its mobile app, takes a great leap forward
Having played with Rdio's updated iPhone app for a week or so, I find myself sinking even more deeply into the tank for subscription-music services. If they can get the mobile aspect right -- and Rdio's update is much closer to "right" than the beta version -- I believe that subscriptions will finally deliver on the "any song, anywhere, anytime" promise that made them so interesting.
Like Rhapsody, Napster, MOG and other subscription-music services, Rdio offers consumers unlimited access to an online jukebox for a flat monthly fee: $5 for use only on a PC, $10 to add mobile devices and living-room gear. Rdio's particular strength is the way it applies social tools to music discovery. The service lets users follow other Rdio subscribers, then prominently displays the ever-changing lists of albums, songs and playlists that are getting the most play within that group. It's a beguiling way to learn about new artists and tracks.
The beta of the Rdio mobile app, however, offered too thin a slice of what Rdio provided on a PC. It showed you what was popular within your group and what you'd been playing lately; displayed the playlists you'd added to your collection; and allowed you to search for artists, albums and songs. But there was no recommendation engine, no list of new releases, and no way to wander through the broader Rdio members to find new people to follow or playlists to add.
The best aspect of the app, in my view, was the ability to load a mobile phone with songs "rented" from Rdio, avoiding the battery drain and occasional hiccups on a mobile or WiFi network. That's particularly handy on the iPod Touch, which doesn't have the continuous connectivity of a mobile phone. The songs remain on the device until you delete them or cancel your subscription, whichever comes first.
The update -- dubbed version 1.0 -- adds browsable lists of new releases and the most popular albums, songs and playlists on Rdio; album recommendations, which are based on your activity on the service; and a greatly improved search capability that also looks for matches among playlists and Rdio's membership. In short, it's a portal into far more of the Rdio experience.
It's still missing some important elements, such as the ability to build and collaborate on playlists, to follow like-minded listeners and to easily explore the broader Rdio community. (The latter is do-able, it's just not simple or intuitive.) I'm also eager to see a similar update for the Android application. Nevertheless, the new iPhone app is a great leap forward.
The last big pieces of the puzzle for subscriptions, I think, are easy and affordable ways to plug them into the living room and the car. Devices such as the Roku player, the Logitech Squeezebox and the Sonos ZonePlayer are providing solutions for the home, although not necessarily at a mass-market price. And a growing number of automakers (and aftermarket suppliers) are enabling drivers to plug mobile devices into their car stereos, either with a wire or via Bluetooth.
Granted, there's still the widely held view that subscriptions aren't as good a value as 99-cent MP3s. But it's not an either-or proposition. Think of subscriptions as a premium cable approach to television, not to be confused with buying complete seasons on DVD. As services like Rdio bring more of their features to their mobile apps, the premium-cable approach looks better and better.
-- Jon Healey