Pandora's ubiquitous platform play

Pandora's model could apply to other content creators and distributors.

Pandora on the iPad and AndroidAn informal survey of my home’s device inventory reveals that Pandora is omnipresent. The music service is accessible through my various computers, an iPad, two iPods, an Android phone, and a Blu-ray player. The only reason I can’t access Pandora through a DVR, stereo, distributed audio system, or car is because I don’t have compatible devices (yet …).

I began mulling Pandora’s presence in my life after interviewing Pandora CTO Tom Conrad (@tconrad) at last month’s Web 2.0 Expo. During our chat, I asked which of Pandora’s platforms is most popular. Here’s what he said:

It’s about 50/50 between desktop and mobile. In fact we just slipped over into having more hours of listening consumed off of the PC than on. And the vast majority of off-PC listening is some kind of a mobile device. There’s a big chunk of iPod Touch usage, and then there’s a small but growing percentage that’s consumer electronics devices. We’ve done probably a hundred or more partnerships for television and Blu-ray players, tabletop radios and stereos, and set-top boxes and even automobiles.

I’m as enthusiastic about platforms as anyone. I believe digital content should be spread far and wide: websites, phones, tablets, ereaders, Facebook, Twitter, RSS — get it all out there. But even my liberal platform perspective pales in comparison to Pandora’s. They’re going for all the platforms, not just the web-based ones.

And this makes me wonder if there’s a lesson here for content companies — both those that create content and those that distribute it.

Decoupling on a different level

A lot of folks in the publishing world have grown comfortable decoupling content from containers. That’s why CSS is an integral part of online content development and XML is a key tool in many production chains. But Pandora represents an entirely different type of decoupling: They’re not just container-agnostic. They’re device-agnostic. You want Pandora’s content on a computer? Done. On a phone? No problem. On your stereo? On a TV? In a car? You bet.

Pandora is a music service, so the expectation is that the music it provides will be available through all the channels where music is consumed — not just the ones chained to a computer. Shouldn’t this be the threshold for other types of content?

Implementation of this type of distributed effort is tricky, but I think the mindset is what really matters here. If we accept that the old model of driving all the attention to specific platforms (e.g. a website, a book, etc.) has been replaced by serving audiences where they want to reside, then shouldn’t content companies make their content accessible through all the appropriate channels and devices? Instead of hedging bets on specific devices or platforms, why not spread that bet across as many platforms as you can? Most will be misses, but some of the hits could come from channels you wouldn’t expect.

Other examples

Pandora isn’t the only content-centric company pursuing the ubiquitous path. In putting together this piece, I was reminded of three related efforts:

  • Netflix made a statement in 2009 when it switched the default tab at Netflix.com from “Browse DVDs” to “Watch Instantly.” The company has followed up by spreading their streaming service far and wide. In addition to standard browser-based access, the Netflix streaming library is now available through game consoles, TVs, mobile devices and other hardware. In many ways, Netflix is the video version of Pandora.

  • Amazon’s Kindle platform extends across computers and devices. The Kindle hardware is simply part of a broader effort to sell ebooks through Amazon. How and where you access Amazon’s offerings isn’t the priority. (Barnes & Noble and Borders are following the Amazon playbook as well.)
  • UK news publisher The Guardian encourages developers to grab its content API — which pumps out the full text of articles — and transform/mash-up/repurpose as developers see fit. The only caveat: the Guardian reserves the right to put ads into its API content stream. This represents one possible way to maintain an advertising model while distributing content across platforms and devices.

The defining characteristic of these efforts is commitment. These aren’t tepid platform plays. The companies behind them are all in, which is necessary during this period of ambiguity and experimentation.

Really, it comes down to this: The old methods of distribution don’t mesh with the ways audiences consume digital content, so a technique that relies on those old methods will either fail mightily, or — perhaps even worse — chug along aimlessly. A bold embrace of the digital landscape is key to seizing the digital opportunity.


The full interview with Conrad is embedded below. His Web 2.0 Expo keynote is also worth checking out.

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