Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Last week's column discussed Slim Devices' elegant Squeezebox hardware, its versatile but complex server software, and SqueezeNetwork, the companion online service through which the hardware accesses the Pandora music recommendation service. Pandora is considered by some to be a "Web 2.0" site -- the blanket term we're all aware of referring to a startup that generates more RSS than revenue.
But Pandora's recommendation engine is the best I've tried. Unlike many others, it doesn't rely directly on the purchase behavior or music ownership of other people, be they friends or fellow customers. Rather, it leverages data from the Music Genome Project, a collaboration begun in 2000 to classify music via its attributes. In fact, some criticize Pandora for being "too good" at matching a song's style, and while there is a case that Pandora should include a control for how strictly it should match a given song or artist, users can at least create up to 100 different channels and diversify them by adding names of songs or artists to the mix.
Pandora can offer a depth of detail as to which musical attributes it chose when recommending a song. However, it doesn't seem to account for at least some important factors, such as the qualities of a singer's voice. Pandora offers a free tier of service, but access via SqueezeNetwork requires a subscription, which costs between $3 and $4 per month. The low subscription price is worth it for at least a few months, but Pandora needs to greatly expand its catalog to keep subscribers interested. Fortunately, Squeezebox owners get a three-month trial of the premium service, a $12 value.