Spotify apps, hands-on: not as exciting as they could be. [video]

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Streaming music service Spotify held an event yesterday to announce the next big phase of their service: apps. The announcement garnered a fairly tepid response from other tech blogs like GigaOm and Cnet, but I'm a glass half-full kind of person so I wanted to check it out for myself.

Here's the crib notes version of the announcement: anyone can write an app once they've requested their account be flagged as a developer account. Apps are built in HTML/CSS and Javascript and run inside the Spotify application. Spotify will curate submissions and asks developers to submit a concept before doing any coding. There doesn't seem to be any immediately obvious way to 'side-load' apps. If you install an app into the Spotify client on one machine, you'll find it is installed in any Spotify client that your account is logged into, so presumably apps are loaded server-side. Apps may be available on mobile devices in the future, but they're primarily intended to extend the Spotify desktop application.

You can download a beta version of Spotify to check out the apps now; otherwise you'll get the update in the next few days. Once you have access you'll see a new section of the left hand menu called, unsurprisingly, Apps, and an App Finder as the first listing. There are eleven apps to start with, mostly focused on music discovery (though one, TuneWiki, displays lyrics of the song that is playing).

I decided to check out the Rolling Stone app, TuneWiki and MoodAgent, which is supposed to build a playlist based on moods like Sensual, Tender, Happy or Angry. I picked Happy and wound up with a play list full of disco. Unfortunately for MoodAgent that playlist made me angry, not happy. Turns out MoodAgent works a lot better if you give it a seed song to work from. One catch with MoodAgent is it'll add songs to your playlist that Spotify doesn't offer (at least not to customers, like me, who don't pay for the service). Hmm.

TuneWiki, as mentioned, displays lyrics to a song; that can be useful in certain circumstances. But really both MoodAgent and TuneWiki felt like they were trying to turn the normally passive experience of listening to music into an activity with knobs to twist and levers to pull. Mostly I just want to find something to listen to while I'm writing.

I was most interested in the Rolling Stone app. Since Google launched Google Music I've been enjoying the "liner notes" that they provide for both bands and individual albums and I was hoping the Rolling Stone Spotify app would provide something similar. No such luck. Instead it's another list of new albums and songs, plus some curated play lists. The app does provide single paragraph reviews, but nothing you can really sink your teeth into. I at first assumed this was a limitation of the app, but following links to the Rolling Stone website I see that bite-sized reviews seem to be standard issue now. Guess I can't fault Spotify for the deterioration of Rolling Stone, though. The curated play lists can be interesting (I liked Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time) but it isn't clear why they need an app just to share playlists.

After my disappointment with the Rolling Stone app, I installed the Pitchfork app. It offered a much better experience, giving me in-depth reviews of 70 different albums. Here, at last, I felt like I was seeing the potential in these apps.

So maybe the pundits are right and this is no big thing, but I'm glad I installed the Pitchfork app before giving up. It gave me hope. Let's see how far developers can take the API. Of course as others have pointed out (see articles referenced above) there's not a lot of financial incentive for devs to build apps for Spotify since there's no obvious way to monetize them. But maybe that's a good thing: maybe this way the apps will all come from people who just love music and the Spotify service. Until that starts happening, the apps are free and load quickly so from an end-user point of view there's no apparent downside to installing a few and playing around with them. We'll have to wait to see whether the idea takes off or not.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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