March 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Nearly Half of All Rhapsody Listening Is Mobile – Even Before Full Facebook Integration

rhapsodyAUSTIN, TEXAS — Spotify might get more of the press these days, but the veteran Rhapsody recently broke the one-million-subscribers mark, due in part to its acquisition of Napster and Facebook integration that lets people try Rhapsody without whipping out their credit card for a free trial.

Unlike Spotify, tThe Rhapsody app lets people try the service on their cellphones and tablets for free — although that does require a credit card, at least for now [updated: Spotify points out that it has a 30-day trial for mobile]. Evolver.fm learned that Rhapsody will soon allow Facebook users to click on each others’ links on their mobile phones in order to listen for free as well, also with no credit card required.

“This device, at least for now, is the primary way people embed music in their lives,” said  Rhapsody product head Jon Maples, brandishing an iPhone. “We think this is the most important thing — the gateway into getting the Rhapsody subscription service embedded in their lives… We’re changing the way we think about product. We’re starting with mobile.”

Given what Facebook has done for Rhapsody and other music services on the desktop, the extension of a free Facebook trial to mobile phones should give the service another boost when that feature launches later this year. It shouldn’t hurt matters that Spotify lacks a free option for smartphones and tablets.

Even before users can click on what their friends are listening to on Facebook using their mobile phones, said Maples, smartphone listening constitutes nearly one half of all Rhapsody listening — a large percentage, considering the company’s ten-year history as a desktop music player. One major factor for that is that smartphones increasingly accompany commutes, road trips, and other time spent in the car, where many of us do the bulk of our listening. To that end, Rhapsody is looking at integrating with the head units in cars (the way MOG did with this BMW), although challenges remain.

“The problem with the car right now is that it’s so fractured,” added Maples. “We could hit all the major players, and we wouldn’t even get five percent of all cars.”

He agreed that the answer is for car manufacturers to offer an open API to control basic functions like Fast-Forward, Play/Pause, and Rewind, so that drivers can control phone-based music with the usual dashboard controls. “We’re trying to encourage the OEMs and manufacturers to go towards that,” said Maples.

As for streaming music in the car without running afoul of monthly data limits, he said that offline playback — the “unsexy” feature we profiled earlier — is crucial. Not only does it make music sound better than when it streams due to having a higher bit rate, but it allows Rhapsody to learn more about what you like. By selecting songs to store on your phone, you’re making a statement about how much you like them — and this feature is not just for technology wonks, as we had suspected it might be.

“It’s just exploded for us, in terms of usage,” said Maples. “On the iPhone, where we have the full feature set for downloading to your phone, more than half of all plays come from downloaded tracks… I think it’s true on the desktop to a certain extent too, and we’re launching a light client sometime this summer. At that point, we’re going to have [offline] caching for both Mac and PC.”

Ironically, one of the most powerful features of streaming music services appears to be the ability not to stream. In other words, the cloud is great — especially when you can carry around chunks of it without worrying about your data connection.