November 11, 2009

The folks at Slacker are anything but slackers, but last month’s announcement that Slacker would phase out its G2 player leaves a hole in its portable player portfolio.

One of the main differentiators of the Slacker service is its ability for it to cache radio stations using Wi-Fi. Slacker’s first player was a rather unsatisfying effort that, for example, had a hard time remembering WPA passwords. The G2 was much improved, although hardly competitive with the best experiences from Apple and Microsoft in terms of portable music players.

Dropping its own branded player makes a lot of sense for Slacker. Helped by Verizon Wireless’s distribution, the company has had great success with its BlackBerry client, but which only now can cache over Wi-Fi with the BlackBerry Storm 2. Slacker is also able to cache stations on Sony’s X-series Walkman, but hat’s a $300 device. So for the short-term, anyway, the end of the Slacker G2 will leave a price-functionality hole for those wanting to listen to the Slacker service offline and on the go. Perhaps dropping support for the G2 will free up some engineering resources to finally implement caching on the iPhone and iPod touch as the Rhapsody team intends to do.

Regardless, Slacker is clearing out the G2 for $129 and throwing in a free dock.

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January 14, 2009

imageNot long after the release of the iPhone, I pleaded for a version of Slacker for the device. The application has arrived but, unfortunately without the feature that motivated me to want it — offline listening. According to Slacker, implementing offline caching of Slacker radio stations of the iPhone would require significantly more development. However, the feature is available today for Blackberry Bold users and some have got it working on the Storm even though an updated version officially supporting the touchscreen Blackberry is in the works..

While there are a number of fine Internet radio applications from Pandora, FineTune, last.fm, Deezer and others already for the iPhone, the Slacker Radio application will at least allow users of the service to access their favorite channels. Slacker has certainly been belying its name, churning out versions of its service that runs on the new Audiovox Internet radio and Sony Bravias, but those are home products that have limited need for offline access the iPhone version could really use.

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September 28, 2008

image With its new and vastly improved portable player, Slacker’s trek may have entered “the next generation.” but its U.S. plans may be moving away from “the final frontier.” Slacker long had plans for a car dock that would enable it to receive programming via satellite, but VP of Marketing Jonathan Sasse told me last week that the company is now looking to leverage its satellite technology primarily in developing economies due to the strength of its caching technology and alternative high-speed delivery methods becoming more viable.

When I asked him if the merger of Sirius and XM, which looked far less likely to happen in Slacker’s early days, had anything do with the decision, he said it did not. The proposed price for Sirius XM’s music-only tier is competitive with Slacker’s premium radio option. Slacker maintains that it still has the upper hand, though, because of the ability to skip tracks, even as a limited (but in my opinion generous) option for non-paying listeners.

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July 23, 2008

imageI’ve long enjoyed the Pandora and Slacker Internet radio services for different reasons and the two companies have taken different paths to get their services playing on non-PC devices. I was really excited for a long time about the concept behind the Slacker Portable — a portable music player that gets loaded up with genre- and artist-driven music stations via Wi-Fi and can then be played practically anywhere with no monthly service fee required. However, the initial hardware execution left me a bit cold.

Pandora, meanwhile, has developed a simple but terrific free iPhone app that has become one of the most popular out of the gate. The main catch, though, is that since Pandora is only a streaming service, it isn’t available if you don’t have coverage. The Slacker service on the iPhone or iPod touch, though, would essentially be the best of all worlds, taking advantage of the device’s Wi-Fi, superior user interface and slim design while utilizing its storage for cached Internet radio stations that work where here is no connectivity.

I’m not sure how this would impact Slacker’s financials (the company pays a much higher licensing fee for the right to cache music locally on the device) or its strategic goals of developing a more cost-effective satellite radio competitor, but broadening device support to Apple’s mobile platform would certainly create a bigger pie from which to drive premium radio subscriptions. And competitive pressure may not provide many alternatives as it seems nearly every other Internet music site is developing some kind of iPhone presence.

Update: Looks like Slacker agrees. Laptop reports on information I’ve also received that a Slacker application is coming to the iPhone and Blackberry. Funny how, despite the success of Windows Mobile here in North America, it’s getting caught in the middle between these two vertically integrated offerings.

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March 25, 2008

sirius-xm-merger.jpgSirius and XM have convinced the Department of Justice that its merger won’t create a monopoly in the radio, or more broadly, music playback, space. While the FCC is expected to follow suit with the DoJ, there is a rush of parties that are looking to add terms and conditions to the merger. Censorship on satellite radio? What would be the point of a premium alternative to terrestrial?

It’s certainly true that there are far more options available for high-quality digital music playback since the time that XM started broadcasting from space. The iPod is frequently brought up as a competitor, but I’ve never really thought of it as a major one. First, the iPod accelerated its move into the vehicle rather late in its rise to popularity and many of the solutions are primitive or awkward.

I’suspect that I, like many MP3 player owners, have music on their players to which they’ve never listened. Mostly, though, particularly for Apple’s ecosystem that has never been as aggressive about music discovery as, say, Rhapsody, iPods are about playing back what you have, not what you don’t. And keeping them fresh requires round-trips between the house and car. So, what satellites really buy the companies better than any competing technology today (save terrestrial radio, which was around at its launch) is direct and unfettered access to the vehicle

Wireless technologies such as 4G and WiMAX have the potential to present a credible no-hassle alternative to satellite radio, but the cost structures don’t support the infrastructure required to deliver it for the foreseeable future. One could argue that they didn’t for XM or Sirius, either. But with a reduced customer acquisition marketing burden, their expenses should become more manageable. In the meantime, the Slacker Portable satellite add-on looks like it will be promising alternative when it arrives.

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January 4, 2008

Time-shifting terrestrial radio has been around for a while. with standalone products from PoGo Electronics, purveyors of fine windup remote controls, the unfortunately capitalized radio SHARK Mac and PC accessory from Griffin, and the new MP3 player filling station from PopCatcher, taking another stab after the TraxCatcher never came to market.

But now a new wave of Internet radio time-shifters are coming to market. There’s the imminent Slacker Portable and the definitely not portable iShift Internet Media Receiver (check out the introductory video with the pornotronica soundtrack), which  packs an 80 GB hard drive. Who needs to record 1,300 hours of Internet radio? in any case, this living room-sized component will be able to sideload its storehouse to the iPod and other MP3 players and uses an Internet recording service from Timeless Radio which looks competitive with the iRoamer service launched a few years back by Aussie firm Torian Wireless.

The MP3 filling station concept, whether it uses FM, Internet radio or some other source, stands to simplify the process of loading up a portable music player.

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