Opening Pandora's Box

by sbh on Friday - 7 March 2008

in Uncategorized

Web apps are in. I’ve spoken a bit about them in the past (e.g., in my post about “Fluid”:http://www.heberts.net/~stephen/reviews/app-review-fluid-site-specific-browser-aka-ssb, which, by the way, has seen a lot of development over the past week). Today, I’d like to highlight a music service called “Pandora”:http://pandora.com, which has really altered the way I listen to music over the past few days. Unfortunately, it may also end up having a detrimental effect on my wallet.

h3. What Pandora Is Not

Pandora is not “Last.fm”:http://last.fm, nor is it some kind of iTunes replacement. Because Pandora, due to the particularities of its music licenses, does not allow you to skip around and listen to tracks at will, it cannot possibly _replace_ iTunes. However, it can definitely enhance your music experience, specifically by broadening your horizons.

h3. What Pandora Is

Pandora is a cross between a music suggestion service (like Last.fm, I suppose) and XM Radio (though, available only via web). As such, Pandora provides me with a great listening experience and the opportunity to find other artists and albums that I might like. That is a cool thing.

h3. How Pandora Works

Pandora, from a user’s perspective, is a very simple concept.

# Signup for an account (actually, I don’t think this is _necessary_).
# Create a “radio” by giving Pandora one of the names of your favorite artists or songs (e.g., “Bob Dylan” or “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
# Enjoy the tunes and explore the artists that are suggested.

Here’s a screenshot of Pandora at work in my Fluid site-specific browser app:

Pandora in Fluid

You can see that the controls are simple: volume, play/pause, and skip. Nothing else to it.

Here I’ve got a radio setup for Dave Brubeck, Bob Dylan, and Wilco. While listening to one of these stations (I’m listening to the Brubeck Radio at the moment), Pandora will choose songs and artists that are similar to the artist that I have picked. So, for the Brubeck station, it’s going to choose mostly jazz pianists — which is a super good thing.

h3. My Experience So Far

As noted above, I have started three different radios. My first choice was Bob Dylan. Those who know me best, know that I’m a full-fledged Bob Dylan fanatic. I listened to the Dylan radio for about an hour, and then looked back over the songs that Pandora had chosen during that hour. I was somewhat surprised to find that about 90% of them were tracks that I already had in iTunes. Really, this should not be surprising — it just proves that Pandora is doing a good job of finding what I might like.

Still, it’s a bit boring. I want to use Pandora to find new stuff. So, in honor of my current favorite rock group, Wilco[1], I created a Wilco radio. This was a bit more adventurous. Pandora was playing tunes by artists that I had heard of, but were not necessarily on my list of stuff that I’d be inclined to buy. This was great. I was hearing new (to me) music by bands like Son Volt (an obvious choice for a Wilco-based station). Very cool.

For me, the situation became even cooler when I created my Brubeck radio. I enjoy a lot of different jazz, but don’t really “follow” it. Consequently, I don’t have a serious knowledge base when it comes to artists and albums. Listening to Pandora’s suggestions has really turned me on to some new stuff (I have a list working…)

h3. The Bad

As I mentioned before, Pandora’s licenses do not allow you to listen to different tracks or even go backwards within a track. This is frustrating for me. I listen to music all day long while I’m working. Sometimes, I don’t catch a tune because I’m concentrating or I’ve gotten up to go get a sandwich. Unfortunately, I have no opportunity to go back and hear it. While I understand that it is in the record companies’ interest not to allow you to play any song on demand, it seems to me that being able to go back and listen to tracks that you’ve already heard during that session would be of benefit to them. I’m not really the kind of guy who is going to buy an album by someone I don’t really know without hearing several different tunes, and several times.

The other bad thing is system resources. Like I said, I’ve got Pandora running as a Fluid app. This makes it easy to see what kind of resources it’s using. At the moment, my CPU and memory usage look like this:

CPU: 10-15%
RAM: 110-120MB

What’s unfortunate, is that these numbers seem to grow throughout the day. Yesterday, after listening for several hours, my CPU usage was in the 20% range, and RAM was closer to 180MB.

This feels like a lot.

h3. Conclusion

Overall, Pandora appears to be a solid offering, especially for those who either don’t have access to their digital music libraries, or who would like to explore new artists and genres.

In short: I’m a fan.

h3. Notes

fn1. By the way, Natalie and I will be seeing Wilco tonight at their concert stop in Houston. I’ll let ya know how it was.

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