On Rdio

Editor's note: Written many years ago, after Rdio (RIP) came out of beta. I would go on to work with the team to design some of these very things.

Music is a huge part of many people’s lives. It seems odd that music is essentially sounds and noises put together to form something that transcends its individual parts. Music, even in its simplest form is a whole, made of parts — be it notes, chords, instruments and layers — that simply are special. Let me just put music into my Magical™ column.

I recently had the pleasure of joining rdio, an online social music service. I was made aware of the service by Wilson Miner who’s been leading the design and user interface of the product. The braintrust is strong — founders of Skype and Kazaa are at the top — and the design team is a testament to how great a product it is. My caveat here is that I’ve never really used any of the other social music sites out there — Spotify isn’t available here, Last.fm has always seemed geared towards statistically tracking your music digestion and I only heard about Lala after Apple bought the service. Colour me green here.

It immediately appeals to me as a service because it’s the one area I don’t have much access to from my social circle. Friends are on Flickr (photography), Vimeo (video), Tumblr, their own blog or Twitter (words) but music has been a gap in that area. What are my friends listening to? What are they digging? Aside from the occasional shared tweet or blog entry, there’s never been a good way to get a glance at what people I’m interested in have their ears on. Until rdio. At the moment, rdio is invite only. This is actually quite important.

Upon entering the service, I looked at it. As in, I studied the logged-in dashboard. A music player to the left, navigation tools at the top and a main window of activity. I saw immediately that because Miner invited me to the service, I was following him. This is quite key as the activity window demonstrates how the service is used but also how my own activity would be shown to the rest of rdio listeners — integrated learning by demonstration.

Collaboration

A feature I found immediately compelling is the playlist feature, but more specifically, the ability to enable levels of collaboration — jamming on playlists with people I follow or everyone who’s using rdio. Back to that social circle: I get to share playlists and friends get to share playlists and we can add and fill them out and remix or mix these playlists to get a crowdsourced mixture. Brilliant.

Heavy Rotation

The Heavy Rotation display shows a collective snapshot of what people are listening to in my network.

And it’s illuminating not just in the fact that it is a recommendation system (the masses can’t be wrong right?) but surprisingly that I don’t own or have heard of most of the albums currently in this list. My tastes have always been a bit late to the game sometimes but also run non-parallel to the general artists of the moment. Oddly enough, this makes it a feature that isn’t as compelling as I thought it might be. I’d actually like to collapse it or hide it so that the main activity stream is higher up on the page.

Like so:

Seamless

Scott mentioned to me that he was impressed with how seamless the player is between the website itself and the desktop version (an Adobe AIR app). They are completely in sync — if you open up the site in another tab, there is no overplaying of one player or the other. If you play a song in one window, you can watch the player in another tab or window move its player along at the same count and progression, like magic. Smooth.

Where You Go

The best feature for me is that I don’t actually have to care about the physicality of my collection. It’s in the cloud. No more backing up my collection to various external hard drives and having to manage my collection on my desktop to prune. I get to keep the silly albums or the one-off songs I want without having to worry about data loss locally or having to figure out storage at home.

Making A Great Product Even Better

There are a few things I’d like to see improved:

  1. People I’d like to be able to browse people at large, directory style perhaps or in some other fashion just to get a sense of who’s using the application. Currently, aside from importing contacts, you can’t do a search for people. Some people I’d be interested in musically, I may not follow on other social networks and aside from seeing who my friends follow via the activity stream, there’s no other easy way to really find people.

  2. Reviews I’d imagine a rating system for album or track reviews either via a star rating or a thumbs up/down, useful/non-useful or “like” method would be handy in pushing the quality of reviews.

  3. Playlists As I mentioned above, I love this feature. Aside from seeing that people are updating their playlists, it’d be great to have a playlist be better described in terms of level of collaboration. I don’t think a non-collaborative playlist needs to say anything but perhaps if it is, it says something along the lines of “Paul Armstrong updated his collaborative playlist.” and let the level of collaboration be intelligent — show the descriptor depending on who’s allowed to collaborate.

  4. Collection The bubbly infographic style of your collection is sort of fun at first but in it’s place, I’d prefer a much more powerful management tool to browse my list. In this respect, iTunes is far, far better as a default view. Since music is also quite visual in regards to album art, I’d love to see a way to browse my collection by album art in a grid. Not cover flow, but a grid that can be ordered through a variety of ways. The variety of ordering methods should also be applied to the list view as well. In fact, the collection should come in Views: List or Grid and be ordered by Artist, Album, Length, Year, Genre, Play Count at the very least. To also take advantage of the social and crowd sourced aspect of the site, rdio could add an additional view to your collection: Heavy Rotation and perhaps Popular (all-inclusive rdio audience) with the same sorts of details ordering. This leaves you with the following views: List, Grid, Heavy Rotation, Popular.

  5. Playback Something rdio is missing from a desktop application is the ability to auto play music, random or shuffled. rdio works with the concept of the queue or playlists but is missing a general, “just play” functionality. Being able to just hit the play button in the player and having rdio do what it does now — either continue something in the queue or the playlist (persistence is great in the application by the way) — but also just randomly pick something from your collection if no playlist is selected or nothing’s in the queue would be quite welcome.

  6. The Desktop rdio’s desktop component is slickly implemented. But as my dependence on the service grows (and I haven’t fired up iTunes in a few days), the shortcomings of being able to browse and use the service on the desktop (I’m aware that Fluid is a potential stopgap to that end) feels wanting. I’d like to browse my collection as outlined above — in fact the mobile version works better than the desktop version. I’m unsure if this is intentional, preferring to drive people to use the site proper but it feels so, so close to being completely seamless across the board that this would be a welcome revision.

All suggestions and mini-gripes aside, I absolutely love the service. Friends have already started subscribing. It is an extremely well-executed and polished platform and I look forward to growing into rdio over time.

To their continued success and the happiness of my ears.