- February 13, 2014
Did Rdio Throw the Web Under the Bus?
From the Brothers Rosage
Rdio announced last month that its music service would be available “free in the U.S. on the web.” The service is still accessible on desktop web browsers with Flash installed, but the site instructs users on smartphone and tablet browsers to access its service via native applications. So, is Rdio’s use of the term “the web” faithful to its technical implementation? Our own developer Brandon Rosage debates the issue with his brother Tyson, a software designer at Treehouse.
Almost a decade since web standards became widely adopted, the push to unify development of desktop and mobile experiences has become an implicit part of our discussion about process and best practices. Often missing from these discussions about the progress and future of the web, however, is the purpose; why do we care about the web and its future. What does it provide us?
Tim Berners-Lee articulated the most basic purpose of the web, its reason for existence, when he described it as “a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information.” Universality is essential to the web’s purpose, because it informs its widespread use (the common information space). In tandem, the web’s purpose and goal of universality create an accurate “mirror of the ways in which we work and play and socialize” (Berners-Lee).
At first glance, it might seem like Rdio’s product, lacking consistency in its fragmented desktop and mobile experiences, does not conform to the principle of “universality” as we know it. But, universality as described by Berners-Lee can provide a different lens through which to view these fragmented experiences—a lens that illuminates the distinction between universality and accessibility. A URL, reliant on a standard protocol, is similar to a telephone exchange: The information (the content of the website or the phone call) is coded in a standard, fixed sequence of numbers so that it may reliably and universally “point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished” (Berners-Lee). Like a phone call, an IP address may direct the user to bunk content; a busy signal or a server error message; an answering machine or a request to download; a greeting in an unrecognizable language or a website written in dingbats. Whatever the answer on the other end of the line, the protocol for transferring that information remains standardized and universal.
Web universality is commonly understood as being synonymous with accessibility, but it is the characteristic of web protocols that define its universality. Although not reaching 100% of users, Rdio’s product still adds to the richness of the web’s content by serving it up via universal protocols through a web browser and then through a Flash download or native mobile application. Redirecting to another page to download third-party software may be a cumbersome, complex task for the user—as frustrating as getting an answering machine in Swahili—but what are the alternatives? Until any viable alternatives present themselves, this imperfect solution remains the only one that can deliver copyrighted music to users on the web.
The establishment and adoption of web standards has played a pivotal role in the growth, accessibility, and efficiency of publishing on the web. Following advancements in hardware and networking technology, web standards have evolved to support the application of new types of media and interaction. While this observation is hardly a revelation, its consideration is important to framing how we understand the web, past and present. Consider that roughly two years ago support for video playback was finally included in the HTML specification. Yet, it is doubtful many people would recognize that watching videos “on the web” was something that they’ve been enjoying for only two years. That is because progressing the web’s purpose will always be ahead of standards at any given time. This is not just a coincidence; it is the nature of innovation: New and often fragile technology matures to later become standardized when possible. Standards can pose limitations to what can be achieved seamlessly on the web. The question that remains is: How will we choose to respond to those limitations? Many will focus their efforts on increasing the web’s accessibility and consistency by closely adhering to standards-supported methods. Others will choose to create new products and information that would have otherwise not existed if limited to the purview of current standards.
The question at hand is not about what the web should be—it’s about the reality of the web and Rdio’s technical implementation. The reality of the web is that it has limitations that made Rdio’s technical implementation the only one possible. The proof? There is no comparable product that does it any other way. Though clearly falling short of some of the web’s goals (i.e. consistency and accessibility), Rdio’s technical implementation remains faithful to the web’s purpose. Rdio chose to innovate beyond what standards currently support, and due to the nature of the publishing industries, the requirement of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has removed its ability to join the standardized, more accessible web. Perhaps in the future, the standards will support DRM protection in order for it to better serve the web’s purpose, but for now, this imperfect solution is a reality that exists for the sake of the web, rather than in spite of it. To simply disregard the product as not being part of the web—or worse, for publishers to abandon the content altogether—compromises the web’s purpose, one of the goals of which is to encompass all the information people want to use.
Creating a more effective information space through standardization is a worthy goal, but it is only a goal. The web only has value when it is serving its purpose, and to sacrifice that for the sake of one of its goals defies logic. Rdio’s technical implementation is not ideal; its inability to fully adapt its content to all devices and its use of proprietary software fail to serve the goal of standardization. Yet, the ability for users to access its product through a computer’s web browser (however imperfectly) is undoubtedly increasing the breadth and scope of information for people to share and enjoy.
As Berners-Lee put it, we should “be conservative in what [we] do and liberal in what [we] expect.” In the quest for developing a more perfect web, it is important to understand that its ever-changing nature means it will always remain imperfect, never reaching stasis, always developing and moving forward. Acknowledging this frees us from the illusion of perfection, empowering us to focus on conservative solutions to real problems.
I don’t think Rdio’s use of the term “the web” is faithful to its technical implementation.
In my weaker moments, I like to think that’s because I care more than you do about how the term “the web” is used. But, that’s not true. I think we both care a lot. I suspect you care because you don’t want to see jerks like me define the web so narrowly that it stifles innovation. And your defense of Rdio’s decision to build a website that requires non-standard web technologies is sound. I don’t take issue with that on its own. What gets me fired up is when these four things collide, as they do with Rdio:
- A company builds a website that’s not accessible to a significant portion of its audience.
- Said company justifies doing so, because, by being on the web, it will benefit from the web’s reputation as a reliable, accessible medium.
- Said company markets its website on the strength of the web’s reputation.
- Said company designs an experience where users must conclude that any unkept promises are the fault of the web itself, not the product design.
Rdio defines “the web” in order to suit its interests, and in doing so disregards the value that attracted it to the web in the first place.
I only see two ways to accept Rdio’s intended definition of “the web.” The first is to regrettably concede that the horse is out of the barn—that we happily accept that the web is a place where what we’ll be able to do with a URL depends on how much creators care about our web-browsing devices. The second is to argue that we should never expect websites to care about our web-browsing devices in the first place.
But, as you might’ve guessed, I reject both of these, because the web’s reputation for being universally accessible is too important. It’s a part of the web’s definition that is worth defending. It’s too important to companies like Rdio, who are depending on it. After all, it’s why Rdio chose to develop a product on the web, despite its inability to deliver DRM-protected audio. The web reaches every person in Rdio’s audience. That’s too damn good to pass up.
Let’s not get reductive about the notion of websites caring about users’ web-browsing devices either. We agree that all website creators must make concessions in how websites perform in different web-browsing environments. The purpose of web standards is to draw a line and define when and how browser-makers and web developers make those concessions.
Like I said, I don’t get too bent out of shape when websites cross that line. I do, however, call bullshit when a company like Rdio crosses that line and then sweeps the rug out from under those who don’t.
That’s what Rdio did when it broadcasted last month that “Rdio is free in the U.S. on the web.” Like most enthusiastic Rdio users, I was thrilled by the announcement. In my case, it solved a real problem: I have been unable to share music I discover on Rdio with friends who are not Rdio users and instead listen to music on their phones.
I reasoned that Rdio’s update meant that I could now faithfully send my buddy a link to Vintage Trouble’s latest album on Rdio, he could visit that URL using his phone’s web browser, and he could listen to the album for free. I don’t think that’s the kind of conclusion only a “naive web standards zealot” would draw. That’s reasonable.
Here’s the actual experience, after opening that Rdio link in Safari on iOS 7:
Rdio serves up a web page with the album’s cover art and the message “Listen to Vintage Trouble. Free.” The page also includes a big blue button that reads “Get the app,” as well as a small call to action in the bottom-left to “Open Rdio.”
No play button.
If you go on to either “Get the app” or “Open Rdio,” you wind up inside Rdio’s iOS app with an Rdio Unlimited 14-day trial account. So, in practice, Rdio isn’t even free in the U.S. by way of the web.
I don’t think that’s an implementation faithful to its promise. It’s a great example of a website whose accessibility is so limited that it’s disingenuous to describe it as “available on the web.” And considering a significant portion of Rdio’s audience uses web browsers that can’t access Rdio’s service, one can only interpret its claim one of two ways:
- It’s bullshit.
- Rdio expects its audience to believe that “the web” means “web browsers we choose to support.”
Make no mistake, Rdio is choosing not to support browsers that much of its audience uses. No one forced Rdio to build a web product that will only work on part of the web. It was a business decision. Before Rdio decided to build a website, it knew it could not make its service available on the web for its iOS and Android users. But, it decided to build a website anyway.
The crappiest part of that decision has little to do with web standards or semantics. It’s that Rdio knew that the cost of its decision would be passed on to its users. Rdio could’ve minimized that cost by communicating clearly how its audience could access its new “free in the U.S.” service: on Rdio.com, using a desktop browser with Adobe Flash installed.
Instead, Rdio reasoned that a clear message would make its product appear inaccessible. So it opted to let users pass that judgment on to “the web.”
Yay! Rdio gets to stand under the banner of innovation. And the web grows into a place where a website is…well, what browser are you using?
I’m simply asking that companies like Rdio be better stewards of the web. Showing greater care for the web means communicating more honestly about how your website works when, in fact, it doesn’t work like users expect.
You, Rdio, and I are in unique positions to shape what users expect. Brother, please tell me Rdio’s definition of “the web” is not what you want users to expect.
Is this a debate about the web or about business and marketing? If we’re simply addressing the question of whether Rdio’s use of the term “web” is appropriate, then let’s stop right here. You’ve conceded that my defense of Rdio’s decision to build a website requiring non-standard web technologies—the very ones that make a mobile experience on anything other than a mobile app impossible—is sound. So, why then are you so unsettled by its decision to “build a website that’s not accessible to a significant portion of its audience”?
Let’s be honest here: Most computers either have Flash or support it, so you’re not standing in defense of those users. It must be the mobile users you’re defending. You see Rdio exploiting the web’s reputation insofar as it broadcasts that it’s available “free on the web.” But, it does qualify that statement and provide some clarity in the first paragraph of the press release:
Starting today Rdio is free in the U.S. on the web. That means you can listen to 20 million songs plus all the albums, playlists, and stations you love anywhere there’s a computer…. Our ad-free option, Rdio Unlimited, will still be available for $9.99 a month for mobile and web access…and don’t forget that Stations are always free on your phone.
There’s nothing disingenuous about the way they communicate how users will be able to interact with Rdio on a computer versus on mobile—the context gives qualification between “computer” and “mobile” and specifies where there are costs.
Sure, Rdio could’ve put a bunch of asterisks and fine print in their 10-word marketing headline and followed with a full spec sheet. Why have a pithy 10-word headline at all? Why not be super vague and say: “Rdio has a new offering—read more”? To catch people’s attention, that’s why. I can sympathize with your annoyance at headlines that are so general as to be confusing. But based on that, you made an assumption about what they meant only to be disappointed. Like the saying goes, “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” Frustrating as it may be when something isn’t exactly what you thought, Rdio didn’t lie about whether it’s being offered free on the web: It does. And its full press release makes a good faith effort to clarify exactly what portions are free on the web and in what way. The product might not be exactly what you want—it might not even be what most people want—but it is all that is currently possible with today’s technology, and no one is forcing you to use it.
Rdio faithfully implemented and faithfully communicated its technology, but it fell short of your expectations on both counts. The reason for our disagreement, in my opinion, is because we have different perspectives on the web’s goals and purpose. Whereas you see the goals and the purpose as one and the same, I do not. In order to maintain the integrity of the web, I believe it is imperative to decipher, even under the most frustrating circumstances, that there are goals on one hand and a reason for them on the other.
This discussion, as I see it, is about how business and marketing decisions affect the web. Though the web is technology, discussion about it isn’t strictly about protocols and code. That’s why I voiced that my objection was not simply with the technology of the web. It’s with where technology and humanity intersect—where what you say about what you make affects people.
I’m not unsettled by Rdio’s technology decisions in of themselves. I don’t lose any sleep when a company builds a website that’s not accessible to a significant portion of its audience. I’m irritated when a company does so and then tries to overcome the pitfalls of that decision with spurious marketing.
This whole thing reminds me of a story Adam Carolla told on his podcast last week about his recent flight out of Seattle. He said he approached a long line of passengers waiting for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) clearance and asked a nearby TSA agent if there was a shorter line for first-class ticket holders, like himself. The agent pointed down and told him there was one downstairs.
Carolla walked downstairs, wandered around the floor and found no line. He found an airport staff member, told him/her why he was there, and asked where he went wrong. The staffer said, “Oh, that’s two terminals down.”
Justifying Rdio’s message because “most reasonable people will understand” is like defending the TSA agent, because “everyone knows that ‘downstairs’ means the bottom floor of Terminal 3, one mile away.”
There’s also nothing “sophomoric” about rejecting the notion that the term “computer” clarifies everything. That rejection is also multi-faceted. Not only is the term “computer” used broadly and publicly to describe devices that don’t support Adobe Flash (like “tablet computer”), but Rdio is also implying that “the web” equates to “computer.”
I don’t take issue with Rdio’s pricing structure or that its service through native apps costs money. I called attention to its 14-day trial account, because Rdio inserted it into a web experience it said was “free.” Nowhere through the process of tossing users into the App Store is that discrepancy explained.
It’s completely wrong to characterize my argument as one about the cost of using Rdio’s native apps. It has always been about how Rdio communicates and shapes the public’s understanding of the web. That argument has rested on the numerous ways I think Rdio massaged its message to appear simple and accessible, while passing along the complexity and inaccessibility to its users and, ultimately, the web.
I’m sorry I wasted time you could’ve spent solving the problem of serving DRM-protected music on the web. I reasoned that protecting what users expect and value in the web was more pressing.