Apple Approves Real's Rhapsody iPhone App; First Look

Maybe it was the anti-trust patrol looking over Apple’s shoulder or the memory of the RealNetworks (NSDQ: RNWK) settlement with *Microsoft*, but the Rhapsody iPhone/iTouch app — the first in the U.S. to offer on-demand streaming music — slid right through the sometimes tortured iTunes approval process. The app, which went live overnight slated to go live in the next day or two, is a free extension of the premium Rhapsody To Go, which runs $15 a month. Any current subscriber should be able to download the app and log right in; other iPhone and iTouch users can get a 7-day free trial, which should be enough to decide whether or not Rhapsody adds that much value to their mobile experience.

During Wednesday’s not-so-big *Apple* music event, CEO Steve Jobs made sure to mention that the iPods don’t require subscriptions. That’s right. They don’t (and that lack of subscription option is one of the reasons I didn’t go iPod). But Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) does get a cut from music subscriptions sold through the iTunes App store, like *Sirius* XM [Ed. Note: the *Sirius* XM iPhone app is free; premium fees for access are paid directly to the satellite radio company, not to Apple.] and Spotify (now available only in UK and Europe) — and it will make money from “free” Rhapsody, too, since the app uses iTunes as its affiliate music store for MP3s.

Features: Users have full access to their library, playlists, channels plus new releases and charts. The app also includes streaming Rhapsody Radio, and as mentioned above, the ability to download MP3s on the fly from the iTunes store. A Real spokesman tells me they decided to go that route rather than try their own store or leave purchases out of the app.

First look: I was an early subscriber of Rhapsody and of Rhapsody To Go since launch (although I’m using a review account for this because of logistics) and have been thinking it’s time to cancel rather than keep two music subscriptions. (Sorry, Rob, but Zune would win that one in my case because it’s my primary music device.) But I have an iPhone now and while I’m still not a big fan of iTunes as my player or music manager, I’m enjoying many of the free music apps. Rafat predicted early on it won’t appeal to people already paying a lot for iPhone service; that may be true for most but it should get a serious look from music fans and could be a hit with iTouch owners. Following the wallet, Real’s biggest competition probably will be Spotify. My early take after 24 hours or so: this app fills a gap for Rhapsody subs and could be the reason I stay on.

Integration: The so-far seamless integration between the app and startled me at first. I wandered into a Paul McCartney playlist in the app, and dipped into a couple of songs I didn’t know well. When I logged into the browser, it knew the last song I’d listened to was Mull of Kintyre and that I’d loaded the Buddy Holly tribute album Not Fade Away. When I added a Bob Dylan playlist in the browser, it showed in the app right away. And, as a test just now, when I added the Green Day Live EP featured on the browser it was in the app MyLibrary in seconds. The best comparison is the Kindle syncing feature that let’s readers pick up where they left off no matter the device.

Navigation: The artist and album info is easy to read, easy to find. (It would be even better if the text included hyperlinks.) Pressing down on the touchscreen during a song brings up a list of choices — add track to library, add track to playlist, view album info, buy track from iTunes and remove track from queue. Some of the management can get a little complicated between the queue, playlist, library; several times I forgot where I stored a track or an album. Also, as far as I can tell, albums are all sorted alphabetically; I’d like a chronological option.

Tracks: Real claims more than 8 million tracks. I don’t know about that but so far I haven’t hit any major walls. Some random examples: Grateful Dead, just added a 20-song Top Tracks list with two different versions of Sugar Magnolia. Not Fade Away (a test search I use across services), lots of covers including the usual suspects. I couldn’t find the Katrina & The Waves version of We Gotta Get Out Of This Place but discovered a seriously bad Partridge Family cover, sort of like the Cowsills doing Hair. Part of the joy of subscription is you can wander in just about any direction without extra cost and put what you want in any order you like.

Quibbles: The touch screen means some actions will happen whether you want them or not. Also, I don’t see how to easily add in the songs I have on the iPhone already or to get it to learn what I like and make the right suggestions.