- (UPDATED) Guest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
Our article about the "unsexy" issue of offline playback — a feature that allows streaming apps to store music and video temporarily so you can play it on the go without impacting your wireless data plan — attracted a fair amount of attention earlier this week, so we decided to dig a little deeper. After hearing from both Slacker and Pandora, we've concluded that there are two reasons that Pandora doesn't have offline playback, while Slacker does.
[Graphic: Like a digital music camel, Slacker's app can store streaming radio stations to your smartphone via WiFi for worry-free playback in wireless data deserts.]
First, Pandora doesn't have the necessary license from copyright holders that would allow them to store hours of programming on your smartphone.
"Pandora would need voluntary licenses with the publishers to cache," pointed out Anders Steele, spokesman for Slacker, a competitor to Pandora. "Right now they have zero [direct] licenses with anyone — labels, publishers etc."
This is true — instead, Pandora pays at the compulsory licensing rates it and other webcasters fought for a few years ago. Any streaming radio company can qualify for those rates, which are lower than the ones copyright holders originally proposed, without dealing directly with labels or publishers. Without that decrease, Pandora might have gone under four years ago.
We've previously confirmed with other companies that a separate license (i.e. not the compulsory ones Pandora has) is required to cache internet radio stations on a device, so Slacker's version rings true. Steele added that this capability lets Slacker do all sorts of neat stuff the other radio apps can't, such as caching radio stations while leaving the ability to "heart" and "ban" songs intact, and in the case of the Android version, waking up during the night to update your stations automatically as you sleep. (The device must be connected to power and WiFi in order for that to work.)
Second, Pandora doesn't view offline playback as a necessary feature.
"We don't offer offline playback," confirmed Pandora vice president of corporate communications Deborah Roth. "Our tech does offer an ideally seamless listening experience regardless of signal drop, which is what you're experiencing (as well as millions of others) when you listen in your car [and] other places via your mobile."
Indeed, we have successfully streamed Pandora in the car for hours without issue. This is possible because Pandora stores bits of songs ahead of time in case your phone momentarily drops the signal. In addition, she said, Pandora's efficient (we heard as little as 32 Kbps) streaming to mobiles mean listeners have plenty of room within their data plans.
"It doesn't really have relevance to the data plans, as you know," said Roth via email. "Audio streams extremely efficiently and we've seen no impact of data plan caps for our listeners."
That may be the case, but the carriers' bandwidth crackdown, already underway, hasn't yet had to factor in the bandwidth deficit the FCC says is headed our way next year, barring the freeing of extra spectrum. If the carriers start cracking down on music streaming in their quest to throttle the bandwidth of their most active customers, offline playback could become an issue for Pandora too as streaming services grow more popular in the car. To be fair, it's working fine at the moment (albeit not on the subway).