I’ve been an extremely casual Apple news junkie for the past couple of years. When news hit yesterday afternoon that Apple was rumored to be in negotiations to purchase Beats, the headphone and relatively new music streaming service, for $3.2 billion USD, I missed it until later in the evening (WSJ, NYTimes, Daring Fireball, which links to the Financial Times story on CNBC). I stayed up late reading different takes and gauging the reaction. So far, most of my usual reads were initially negative, some unusually so.
I will admit, it seemed insane for Apple to pay that kind of money for a streaming music service. That’s been the focus of what the punditry is saying about the deal. However, Beats revenue for calendar year 2013 was just north of a billion dollars. While I concur that Apple needs a better solution to its streaming service, iTunes Radio((iTunes Radio is ad free for around $2 a month via a $24 yearly fee for iTunes Match.)), Beats Music doesn’t have the user uptake of Spotify. However, the Beats Music app has some great features like mood matching((You create a sentence describing where you are, what you are doing, with whom and what genre of music you want to listen or what you want to accomplish)), human curation and recommendation paired with your votes on songs. Hook the Beats app to iTunes for purchases and done. We could stop here, because after obsessing over this, an iTunes/Beats Music pairing seems perfect. While I have used Rdio and Spotify as a premium member, I haven’t made purchases from either service. I buy through Amazon and Apple. If I could pair a brilliant streaming app with Apple’s iTunes ecosystem? Yes and done.
* * *
I think Beats Music has a great interface that addresses one of the biggest gripes I have of any app with play/pause functionality, including the iOS lock screen when media is playing: they fail to answer the questions “how easy is it to click play?” and “how easy is it to pause?” in a sane way. I had this same gripe with WinAmp and Audion skins back in the day. Play and pause are the most important thing I’m going to do with a listening app. Make that the damn focal point. Especially if I’m driving. Sure, Apple’s automotive initiative is great, but I’m living in the now and need to pause the music to hear what the four year old needs from the backseat. Beats Music lets me pause with a large section of the screen, larger than any of the playback apps, including podcast apps, with maybe the exception of Stitcher’s car mode, e.g.:
Beats Music has other interface features that Apple would likely not build into an app, especially given the Helvetica Neue zen design minimalism of Jonny Ive. Oldsters like me might recall that iTunes was itself an acquired product and after 13 years, should not have anything else added to it. iTunes is already tipping over from the bloat.
This morning I caught This piece from Jon Maples (Hat tip: Daring Fireball) that points to the decline in download purchases and the growth in music streaming services and the need for Apple to get on board. His conclusion matches mine after thinking it through: Apple is getting a sweet deal.
If Spotify’s claims are true that it has 10 million paying customers for the premium version, that’s $100 million a month or around $1.2 billion a year, just for subscribers for music streaming. The Apple/Beats deal makes a great deal of sense as a streaming play only, forgetting for a moment the billion dollar headphone business. Plus, the Beats Music app works on Android and Windows Phones. Apple could offer an upgrade path to iTunes customers for a monthly subscription with an app that skews younger and gives a superior experience to customers from Apple’s current offering. Beats on all those Android phones… wait. Android or not, what’s not to like about this purchase?
Given the shite state of affairs in the Apple ecosystem around iOS7 and iCloud, recent history proves that Apple is not a great services company. While I use iCloud, it’s slow and pales in comparison to the ease and robustness of Dropbox. Sure, iTunes Radio is something I use, but not as much as Spotify. I pay for iTunes Match, and I have streamed songs from my library to my iPhone and iPad, but iTunes is slow to find (search issues!) and stream my songs extremely slowly (15 second delay before the song starts to play!). I have tried download a few songs onto a new device, but it’s too slow. Music listening is impulsive and Spotify meets that need by being so much faster to play my stuff. I’ve only one issue with Beats and that was a crash after running it for a few minutes after install. Restarting the app fixed it and it hasn’t given me grief.
Speaking of while I was writing, Dr. Dre posted a video that many are taking to be a confirmation of the deal. Note: video might be pulled.
Finally, I wonder if Apple would bundle Beats headphones/earphones with devices. If they cut the price a bit, I think a lot of people would go for something like an audio upgrade option. Maybe it’s the headphones/earphones and 90 days free streaming when you purchase an iPhone. I doubt Apple would go for something like that, but it would make sense to bundle up a premium headphone, iPhone and offer streaming music for a couple of months, especially if the purchase path is super easy and when I opened iTunes on my desktop, my Beats purchases were there. Also, music the second you activate your phone.
I wonder if Apple had planned on announcing this deal at WWDC this year and if that will change.