By Harry McCracken | Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 11:26 am
There was a time when I was a raving satellite radio fan. I still own an XM receiver and enjoy some of its stations. But let’s just say it: It’s not going to be that long until satellite radio is a largely obsolete technology (I suspect truckers will be the last holdouts). And unfortunately, the merged Sirius XM isn’t doing much to keep its service relevant and appealing in the iPhone age. Actually, it seems to be driving a meaningful percentage of its customers crazy with price hikes, channel changes, and the like.
Even so, I’ve been looking forward to the Sirius XM iPhone app, which launched in the iPhone App Store today. But my experience with it so far has fallen way, way short of the simple pleasure provided by other iPhone radio apps such as Pandora, Slacker, and Tuner. After the jump, I’ll explain why.
The signup process is hellacious. Or was in my case, at least. I tried to add online/iPhone listening to my existing XM account via the XM Radio Online site, and it sent me into an endless loop in which it kept telling me that my account wasn’t set up for online listening and bouncing me back to the home page. I finally figured out that I could add the service by signing into my XM account. But even then, I had to create a separate online/iPhone listening account at a different site. In all, I spent half an hour figuring out something that should have taken less than five minutes.
The pricing is a problem. You can get seven days of free access to the service, but the signup process never tells you how much you’ll pay after that–it just keeps telling you that the application itself is free, which is weird doublspeak given that it’s useless without content. You need to rummage around to learn that service is $2.99 a month if you subscribe to Sirius or XM–the site told me I might qualify for free access, but I think that’s just wrong–and $12.95 a month for listening only via the Web and iPhones. The XM and Sirius satellite services cost $12.95 a month, so that means Internet-only listeners get no discount; I’m not sure if the upcoming $2 “music royalty fee” will apply to online/iPod access or not. I’m sure some satellite junkies will pay the extra three bucks to listen on their iPhones. But considering the profusion of great, free music apps for iPhones, Sirius XM’s $12.95 price is going to be a very, very, very, very tough sell.
A lot of stuff is missing. My XM satellite service boasts “over 170” channels; the iPhone app has “over 120.” That leaves around fifty channels which Sirius XM doesn’t have online rights to missing. They include both much of the marquee stuff (Howard Stern, Oprah, Major League Baseball) and low-profile channels I like (such as the old-time radio station). For this reason alone, an online/iPhone-only subscription should cost a lot less than one delivered by satellite–it’s lacking much of the satellite service’s value proposition. (On the plus side–just barely–there are four online-only stations: two music ones, a talk one, and a comedy one.) And note that Major League Baseball is selling the excellent MLB At Bat application for $9.99 for an entire season’s worth of audio of every game, plus some video.
The dual Sirius-XM branding is a pointless pain. Sirius and XM got approval for their merger in part by promising the FTC that they’d maintain both services. But it’s all a charade, and a confusing one: The two brands offer slight variants of the same thing. The iPhone app is cobranded; the free seven-day trial is labeled as Sirius; I had to go into XM customer service to upgrade my account. I feel like personally petitioning the FTC to allow the merged company to backtrack on its agreement and offer one thing under one name.
So how’s the iPhone app itself? Okay, but just okay. As you’d expect, you can browse around channels by category. You can also buy songs from iTunes. But the use of screen real estate is odd–the app squeezes the current song into a tiny window at the top of the screen–and there are all kinds of things an iPhone music app can do that this one doesn’t, like let you see information on the current artist and song. In a perfect world, Sirius XM would have built an application that was a great Internet radio app, period. Instead its provided an adequate interface for an incomplete version of its satellite service.
All of which leaves me still figuring out whether I want to keep my XM service or dump it and use my iPhone for radio listening everywhere, including in the car. One argument in favor of XM: My car receiver is easy to use while driving, but even if you figure out a way to mount the iPhone on the dashboard, you’re going to have trouble switching stations without veering off the highway and possibly killing yourself and others. (Maybe someone should come up with an iPhone Internet radio app designed specifically for in-car use, with great big on-screen buttons.) I’ll let you know what I decide. And if you’re a satellite listener, I’d love to know what you think of the iPhone app and the current state of Sirius XM in general.