Double big news from our good friend Brad Hill: his long anticipated book Digital Songstream is out for your enjoyment and edification, and he has written up one of his patented reviews of the new AOL MusicNet service.
First, his book:
- The Digital Songstream is about the liquification of music, transforming it from shelved plastic discs to fluid bits and bytes on the global datanet.
Digital music is not about free music. It is about the liberation of music from obsolete formats and artificial scarcity imposed by an industry that has not embraced new-millennium realities. Digital music is about building your life’s soundtrack with unprecedented flexibility and cost-effectiveness.
Neither the book nor the site advocates or instructs in the infringement of copyright. However, both are informed by the unstoppable reality of P2P file-sharing and the historically cyclical effect of new technology on the media industries. Accordingly, issues of copyright and the civil disobedience of music consumers are treated here as part of a big picture. That picture includes the long-term evolution of the media marketplace, the civil liberties of online citizens, the dangers of government regulation, and the sanctity of personal-use copying.
In other words, much of what we talk about here – a must read if you are interested in the digital delivery of music, and who isn’t?
Next, his review of MusicNet:
- Review – MusicNet On AOL
In the fall of 2001, MusicNet rolled out its first iteration, bundled into the RealOne subscription service. One of two label-owned online music services (MusicNet is also part-owned by RealNetworks), MusicNet was difficult to evaluate for two reasons. First, because it was just a small part of the broad multimedia offering of RealOne, which includes news, sports, and non-music entertainment products.
The second reason for MusicNet’s confusing start was self-inflicted. RealNetworks stretched the credulity of even its hostile observers by daring to release the first client in its beta version, to paying subscribers. Scandalous on the face of it, a flagrant and profound bugginess alienated pioneer customers of authorized music downloads. I had been working online for ten years at that point, building and reviewing online services, and I had never seen such a ragged product launch. Uncountable numbers of would-be participants in this new business model were driven back to unauthorized music providers.
America Online, an on-board MusicNet distributor, refused to carry v1.0, further thwarting its penetration. Going back to the drawing board, AOL lent designers to the MusicNet effort in an attempt to develop a service worthy of AOL’s sizable customer base. The result is MusicNet on AOL, which consists of a dedicated desktop client operating outside the AOL service window.
AOL subscribers can sign up for MusicNet through the flagship AOL program, simply adding the monthly charge to their existing bill. The service promises 250,000 songs and one free trial month. There is no promotional splash in version 7.0; one must drill to the Music section to find MusicNet. Three monthly subscription tiers are offered:
* Basic: 20 streams and 20 downloads
* Standard: Unlimited streams and downloads
* Premium: Standard plus 10 track burns
Unsurprisingly, downloads are security-wrapped, and last only as long as the subscription is active. The value proposition is roughly identical to other services, and does not provide interesting comparisons. MusicNet On AOL must be evaluated on the basis of its interface and client features.
AOL’s version of MusicNet operates through a dedicated (but not autonomous) client called MusicNet On AOL. Unzipped, the size of the client’s folder structure is 11.4MB.
Even though MusicNet On AOL is a distinct program, existing outside the AOL program shell and with its own desktop icon, it operates only when the AOL program is logged on. Log out of AOL, and the MusicNet On AOL program instantly stops playing and pokes up a request to sign back in to AOL. This unfortunate arrangement compares badly to the autonomy of the Pressplay client, which operates independently of its distributors, Yahoo! and MSN. The MusicNet On AOL client does boot up independently, but use of any feature, including the search engine, requires signing into AOL through the flagship program.
There is some functional linkage between the two clients. Clicking the Artist Info on AOL buttons brings up an information page within the AOL client. But it’s a Web page from AOL’s WWW site, not proprietary content within the firewall. So the client linkage assumes that AOL is (or should be) the user’s Internet portal. The situation is especially frustrating and resource-wasteful to anyone using AOL’s back door TCP/IP entrance, wherein AOL is generally not the ISP.
When it comes to finding music, MusicNet On AOL is the most unfriendly and uninquisitive music program being distributed anywhere. No browsing via directory structure or pull-down menus of genres and sub-genres. Keyword searching only. Clicking the Find Music tab brings the following hostile missive: “Use the ‘Search for Music’ tool at left to find new music.”
There is an alphabetical list of all MusicNet artists (1,066 of them), unclassified by genre–not much more useful than keyword searching. Furthermore, that stark directory sometimes delivers startling results: clicking on Al Dimeola brings up the guitarist’s albums plus recordings of Bizet’s “Carmen” and music of Schoenberg. Genres are not supplied. Genre searching is enabled by typing a genre into the keyword box, pulling the menu down to “Music Styles,” and hoping for the best. Search results are limited to 250 tracks, with no “Next” screen. This astonishingly ineffective system seems to be the brainstorm of a designer deliberately intending to infuriate users, and utterly inhibit the discovery of music. There is no worse music-client interface on the market today.
* No keyboard commands.
* Cannot resize panes within client window.
* Client crashed and disappeared during stream.
* Client crashed during keyword search, causing a crash of AOL’s client.
* Stream buffering is moderate to slow: 10-15 seconds to open during testing.
* Streams sometimes filled with small stutters, making a gurgling effect.
* Streaming is quicker and smoother in the AOL Listening Lounge, which features thousands of songs streamed through the integrated AOL Media Player.
* When downloading, the Stop and Resume buttons are grayed out–they simply don’t work.
* After downloading, it takes as long to open a downloaded file as a streaming file!
* Preferences panel is an absolute joke. It consists of three rudimentary settings for burning CDs, and nothing else.
* Users cannot determine download location. In fact, downloaded files could not be located during the test at all using Windows Explorer. It’s a secret, known only to the MusicNet On AOL client.
MusicNet On AOL’s functionality is a categorical failure within the current music subscription market, but whether it will succeed as a business is beyond prediction. AOL has long lived by the formula that equates features with complexity, and assumes that complexity is not what AOL subscribers want. Accordingly, MusicNet On AOL is astonishingly feature-poor. The client compares badly with versions 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0 of Pressplay, and all versions of Rhapsody. In fact, comparisons of client functionality are embarrassing to those services, which reside in a different realm than this clunker. Whereas all three high-profile services suffer from value shortcomings, Pressplay and Rhapsody valiantly attempt to lure customers through addictively fun interfaces. They make finding new music a pleasure, while MusicNet On AOL essentially prevents discovery. As to the industry’s current crop of advanced features, such as playlist sharing and targeted station building, MusicNet On AOL’s development curve puts it years behind the times.
None of this is particularly surprising. Keeping cusomers mired in the past is an AOL tradition, and delivering hassle-rich consumer products is a RealNetworks tradition. The danger here is that MusicNet On AOL might succeed, and gain significant traction among AOL masses. In that eventuality, the more progressive work of Pressplay and Rhapsody could be stunted as a second-rate feature set establishes a template for success.
Whatever happens within the AOL firewall, reasonably aware online music consumers will stay far, far away from MusicNet On AOL, which follows in its parent’s stumbling footsteps with this extremely poor release.