Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Sound of Web 3.0

We've long been fans of Tim Westergren and the Music Genome Project.  In 2003, at our East Bay Venture Capital Conference, Savage Beast Technologies (as his company was called then) was honored as the best presenting company at the event.

The business model was very different then.  The inference engine SBT built around their proprietary musical attribute database was furnished to music retailers, to recommend music to their customers based on their previous purchases.  It turned out that music retailers were going to need a lot more help than that.

So Westergren and his team repurposed the code to create the streaming internet service Pandora, which has become one of the most popular "personalized radio" sites on the web.

Meanwhile, there has been a lot of discussion about the next era of internet evolution, the so-called "Web 3.0", and what it will look like.  Observers professing expertise in the matter say it will be "semantic" and "distributed" and "mobile".  Indeed, it may be inaccurate to call it "web" anything.  The term of art in play lately is "stream".  The web is a network of sites using a shared protocol, whereas the stream is a constantly updated delivery of rich media content to a variety of user devices, not just the personal computer.

One indication of this evolution is the .tel top level domain.  It's a directory where users store and publish via granted privileges their personal, professional, and social contact information.  When this service was still in beta, we were informed that it was "beyond the browser".  It is accessible by mobile devices directly, and can be utilized by location-aware services.

We submit that Pandora is an early example of this new network paradigm.  It is semantic, inferring preferences from user behavior.  It's distributed, and can be used via internet appliances such as the Vudu set-top box.  And it's mobile, with clients available for the iPhone and other hand-held devices (although, lamentably, not for the Palm Treo, alas).

One other evolutionary dimension in the social media world is the "freemium" business model, and Pandora has been a pioneer in this, as well.  Pandora is free to use.  You just go to their site, start a station by citing a few artists or records, and it plays music that you will probably like -- and may never have heard before -- based on your selections.  Because Pandora pays royalties on these plays, it stops once per hour to confirm that you are still listening.  And, as with most free content services, it comes with display advertising on the site.

But you can upgrade to a premium subscription, which eliminates the ads and the interruptions.  We've had a premium subscription for awhile now, and at $36/year (less than a dime a day), it's one of the best deals you'll find.

Well, earlier this week, Pandora took it up a notch.  The premium subscription is now branded Pandora|One, and offers several improvements, the most immediately noticeable being a higher bitrate, up to 192Kbps, which is audibly superior if you have the broadband to support it.  But the coolest thing is the new desktop client, that runs on the Adobe AIR stack, a development platform that boasts that it is also "beyond the browser".  

It's an elegant looking utility, with an instantly comprehensible interface, especially if you're already quite familiar with the browser-based version.  Like a number of other Adobe AIR-based products (Seesmic Desktop, e.g.), it combines graphic, multimedia, text, and controls in a very compact package.  From the default view, you can play or pause, adjust volume, "like" or "unlike" a selection, or call a menu for more options, including help, bookmarking, station info, and the ability to email a station to someone, or purchase the content from iTunes or Amazon.  You can also set preferences, including display, notification, and quality parameters.

It is released as version 1.0.0, bucking the trend with many services soft-launching as "Preview" or "Beta" versions, with the implication of "unexpected results".  So far, we've been using it for several hours, and it appears to be quite stable and ready-to-ship.  Kudos to Westergren and the Pandora team for this excellent new product/service bundle.  They've weathered some rough times with the copyright and royalty battles, and like many companies had to reduce their workforce to remain viable.  With this latest development, they've taken a major step in the direction of a fee-for-service revenue stream (pun intended) that is affordable and sustainable.  Seriously, a dime a day.  You just can't beat that.


jb said...
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Anonymous said...

Westergren and his team repurposed the code to create the streaming internet service..

Thanks for sharing...

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