Friday, October 31, 2008

Streaming to iPhone, I guess I have to care

Technology purist, stand aside! Streaming radio to the iPhone is important.

Back before Apple released the 3G iPhone, I derided the attempts to stream to iPhone. In my defense, my criticism was justified at that time. However, the facts on the ground have changed and now I must sing a different tune.

Case in point, Radio NRI had been streaming for months using standards-based 3GPP format to Sprint and AT&T phones as an off-deck solution. The results were less than stellar and the percentage of total listeners using the mobile streams was negligible.

Then in July, AOL Radio released their AOL Radio app for iPhone. As of October, an estimated 10% of the listeners enjoying the Radio NRI streams on AOL Radio were on the iPhone. 10%! That is a huge percentage considering the relative market share of iPhone. Yes, iPhone shipments are surging, but they still form potential audience that is an order of magnitude smaller than the broader multimedia phone market. At street events this summer, people would walk up to the Radio NRI booth with their iPhone saying "I found you guys here, this is amazing, I was just listening to Bollywood Classic Hits in my car using my iPhone."

What makes the popularity of iPhone radio applications so surprising is that they are generally using MP3 to deliver their streams. In general, MP3 is way too fat for mobile streaming and the streaming protocol it uses is not at all suited for reliable listening. Nonetheless, iPhone users are eating it up.

This audience has two big things going for it. First, the iPhone is dead easy to use. Do a side by side of trying to tune into on your Sprint multimedia handset (even on the lauded Samsung Instinct!) and then try to use AOL Radio on your iPhone. The comparison is like night and day. Using a dedicated radio app on an iPhone is much easier than navigating through your multimedia phone's clumsy UI.

Second, the iPhone user is motivated. They whole reason they bought the phone was to access the Internet, enjoy media, and to download custom apps. This motivation makes it natural that iPhone users would want to enjoy Internet radio on their iPhone. A perfect match.

So here I am, eating a bit of crow. To repeat the words of Stephen Colbert, "the free market has spoken." Internet radio on iPhone is a key audience for all broadcasters. Now they need to work to deliver iPhone apps that get beyond the crappy MP3 streaming and start delivering quality audio over reliable transports.

Stay tuned...

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