Rumblings about an Apple-branded music streaming service began nearly a year ago when word leaked about the electronics company entering licensing agreements with the major record labels. With the rumors confirmed at Apple's iPhone 5S/5C/iOS 7 announcement last week, iTunes Radio is set to launch Wednesday.
Whether it is what the collective intelligence of the Internet calls a “Pandora killer” remains to be seen, but iTunes Radio has many things going for it.
For one, it will be a marquee on-board feature with the iPhone's new operating system, so millions of people who either buy a candy-colored iPhone 5C, a supercharged and thumbprint protected iPhone 5S or just download iOS7 into their existing phone will be encouraged to try it.
The second factor remains to be seen, but given Apple's considerable licensing power for music on its iTunes Store, it seems probable that iTunes Radio will have a massive song selection on board.
Pandora might have the largest number of active users for any music streaming service at 72.1 million, but the company's song library is relatively paltry: as of February, the service offered 900,000 songs for streaming compared to Spotify's 20 million. If iTunes Radio is closer to Spotify than to Pandora on that count, then it could significantly cut into Pandora's user base.
In Pandora's favor, Apple's market share for the smartphone market has fallen considerably in recent years with the advent of less expensive Android phones and popular, big-screen alternatives like Samsung's Galaxy series.
Since iTunes Radio will only be available on iOS7, its probability of being the fabled “Pandora killer” is unlikely, even if it manages to supply a superior product. Also, Microsoft expanded its Xbox Music service just ahead of Apple's announcement, and it will be available on Windows, Android and iOS devices.
While there were initial reports that the music labels were resistant to an Apple incursion into the streaming music business, they were probably mollified by one key feature: the service will feature a button allowing users to instantly purchase a song through the iTunes Store will they are listening to it on iTunes Radio. Anything that speeds or encourages commerce in the current music industry environment must sound good to the labels.
No denying it — Apple is late to the game on streaming music, but the company that revolutionized the legal downloading of songs could also be the one to finally get it right.
Pandora does not have enough songs, and so far, my experiences with Spotify's radio algorithm have been lukewarm — way too many repeats from too few artists in the represented genres and formats.
But this week, we'll find out if Apple can take a bite out of its streaming competitors.