January 8, 2011 at 11:07 am

CES 2011: It’s a Pandora World After All

Pandora founder Tim Westergren prepares to connect an iPhone running his Pandora app to a BMW Mini (photo: Eliot Van Buskirk)..

LAS VEGAS NEVADA — Pandora has officially hit the mainstream — and the highway. In an exclusive interview with Evolver.fm, Pandora founder Tim Westergren rattled off some amazing statistics about his ten-year-old music streaming service before taking us on a test drive on the Las Vegas strip in order to demonstrate the app’s solid integration with a BMW Mini Countryman:

  • 75 million registered listeners have used Pandora, which is about a quarter of all Americans. When you take into account the fact that you must be 13 or older to use the service, that percentage climbs even higher.
  • The service is now available on over 200 devices in addition to the computer.
  • Users rated songs with a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” over three billion times last year.

Each car's controls for Pandora and other apps vary; the BMW Mini Countryman has a little control stick that can be twisted and toggled to navigate a stripped-down version of the Pandora interface designed with distraction-free operation in mind.

Those are big numbers, and just about all of that listening took place on the computer and the smartphone. Now, Pandora is looking to expand to the connected television — and more importantly, the automobile dashboard.

“The car is definitely the big new story for us,” said Westergren. “It’s not in a lot of cars yet, but we have some actual implementations that are live, and you’re seeing them here – the BMW Mini, Ford Sync which is available now – it’s our foray into what will probably be our biggest single market, in cars. It’s half of all radio.”

For now, Pandora and other in-car music apps run on smartphones with a wired connection to cars’ dashboard controls. Eventually, Westergren agrees that music apps will probably run natively on car computers, with no phone required. For now, he sees the phone as “a really convenient universal modem” for accessing online music on the go.

About that modem: We recently wondered whether MOG subscribers on Verizon’s 4G LTE phones would be willing to limit their listening to under an hour per day in order to avoid exceeding the carrier’s 5GB monthly wireless data limit, in part due to its high-quality 320 Kbps MP3 stream. Pandora, on the other hands, streams to smartphones using one tenth as much bandwidth per minute. Its 32 Kbps AAC+ codec, which sounded fine through the Mini’s speakers, is efficient enough to let people on limited wireless plans (just about everybody these days) enjoy music wirelessly without worrying about racking up penalties from their cellphone service providers for using their phones too much.

Pandora shows up as a radio option on the Mini's high-resolution screen, which BMW senior engineer Robert Passaro explained was placed high on the dash for safety reasons.

“The average user on Pandora uses less than 10 percent of the 2GB AT&T cap, so we’re not really a major user of bandwidth,” explained Westergren. “But we’ve been working on that for a long time with this specific potential issue in mind.”

Pandora takes a unique tack among music services by having humans hand-pick and describe extensively every song on its service — an approach that limits its catalog relative to those of other services (although 75 million people don’t have much of a problem with that). So far, Westergren says Pandora has 850,000 songs — a number that is always increasing, but is still significantly lower than that of many other music services.

Traditionally, Pandora users listened to those songs on their computers, but smartphone usage is now increasing faster.

Pandora showed off a number of upcoming car implementations at CES including this Alpine unit, featuring hardware "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" buttons that let drivers rate songs to customize their listening profile.

“Smartphones just exploded the use of Pandora in terms of raw hours and raw listeners,” said Westergren. “We’re growing faster on the smartphone than on the computer.”

However, as far as in-dash integration goes, that growth will be checked somewhat by the fact that people don’t upgrade their cars as often as they do their phones. Americans upgrade their cars every seven years on average, so it will take some time before all of these millions of Pandora users can control the app with their car dashboards — a crucial safety feature, as anyone who uses the smartphone itself to control music app playback in the car, present company included, can tell you.

As more new cars hit the road, though, the Pandora founder expects usage of his app to take off even more than it already has.

“It’s going to be viral,” he said. “The passenger’s going to get in the car, and they’re going to immediately want to know, ‘What’s this?’ Every time three other people get in [a Pandora-enabled] car, they’re all going to get introduced to it, and I think it’s going to spread so fast.”

In total, the effect of bringing music apps including Pandora and others to the car will be a good thing for music, which has become, for many of us, something we consume while doing something else. When you’re listening to music on a computer, the whole internet is there to distract you. In the car, on the other hand, eyes are otherwise occupied, leaving ears to focus on music — which, thanks to Pandora and others, will soon be much better (i.e. personalized) than an FM or satellite radio station can ever be.