Across the pond, our European neighbors have been enjoying Spotify for some time now. It’s only fair that Apple should continue on in that vein and approve Rhapsody for the American masses. Sure Rhapsody costs money and Spotify doesn’t, but it does present a very competitive subscription-based alternative to iTunes.
For just $15.99 a month, Rhapsody subscribers have unlimited access to the site’s entire database of tracks, which numbers somewhere around eight million, and features most of today’s popular artists. While users of Last.fm and Pandora have been able to stream customized radio feeds directly to their devices since early on in the history of the App Store, Rhapsody is the first to bring on-demand tracks and albums to U.S. iPhone owners.
It may seem like direct competition for Apple’s own iTunes service, but is it really? Subscribers can stream music to their devices over either Wi-Fi or 3G network connections, but if you want to listen to music outside of Wi-Fi or cellular coverage areas, you’re out of luck, because the app has no offline access at all. Even if you are connected, constant streaming will significantly reduce your device’s battery life.
There’s also the issue of quality. Regardless of the type or quality of data connection you have, Rhapsody content streamed to the iPhone is only 64kbps — which, to someone like myself who tries to find FLAC recordings when possible, is absolutely unacceptable. I won’t even listen to internet radio streams if they don’t broadcast at at least 128kbps, and I don’t touch AM radio.
If you’re willing to put up with sub-par sound quality, and complete silence anytime you have to use the subway or take a trip to the remote wilderness or do anything that lasts more than a few hours away from a power supply, then maybe Rhapsody seems like a true iTunes competitor. I think Apple is gambling on the fact that most users will be willing to make one of those concessions, but definitely not all three.
Rhapsody is the product of a partnership between RealNetworks and MTV, which means they know a fair bit about sound, digital audio and music appreciation. This early version of its iPhone app probably doesn’t tell the full story of what it has planned in the future. Better to have a foot in the door with less than ideal functionality than to be left out in the cold like Google was with its Voice app.
Rhapsody is available now as a free download in the App Store.