radio technology

Apple iPod Nano – now with FM and Tagging. Is that good?

Just when you think there’s nothing interesting you can blog about, Apple come and chuck fresh meat to the wolves.

Of course, everyone’s excited about Apple including radio in one of their devices for the first time. That’s clearly good news. It would be amazing news if it was a DAB Radio in Europe, and an HD Radio in the States, but let’s work on that one. Baby steps.

Let’s assume that Apple don’t incorporate functionality into their devices unless they think users are going to go “wow – cool”. As Mark Ramsay says, Apple didn’t just throw an FM tuner in there; they “enhanced radio”, so it includes pause/rewind and tagging. Adding this kind of functionality costs real money (in material and engineering time), so we should be pleased that Apple see that as a worthwhile investment. Yes, Radio is still cool, and still valued even by the cool kids who buy Apple iPod Nanos. This is a “radio” that 15-24s will love to have.

James explains a bit about how the existing Apple iTunes Tagging works. It’s a system designed to do one very specific job, for one specific group of stations and listeners. It transmits Apple iTunes Catalogue IDs in spare RDS ODA (Data) groups, using a form of encryption (discuss…). The radio station incorporates the iTunes IDs into their FM RDS transmission, the iPod Nano receives/decodes this, and when you hit “Tag” it stores the ID/Artist/Title in memory. When you sync up your Nano with iTunes, iTunes converts that into proper store links, and offers you the downloads. It works. Listeners can tag songs on the radio, and buy them in iTunes. A similar service is also available on HD Radio, and was launched earlier, IIRC.

So what’s not to like. Isn’t this the perfect demonstration of innovative revenue generation in a digital media world?

Maybe, but I don’t think it was initially designed with the listener in mind. It looks like a system designed to turn radio listeners into Apple iTunes customers. There’s nothing wrong with that, incidentally. The rather depressed radio business got a big kick out of being able to announce a tie-up with Apple, who are highly regarded. There’s significant kudos is being allowed to play with the smartest boys on the block.

James has pointed out the weaknesses in the existing system. It doesn’t scale terribly well (although HD appear to be also transmitting different tagging information to support Microsoft’s new Zune HD), and it only works for iTunes and material that’s in iTunes.

There another weakness in the system, in my opinion.

If you look at how the meta-data moves around, it goes in one direction only. From the radio station, via FM, the Nano, iTunes and to Apple. After the radio station has splurged the meta-data out on the broadcast platform, it has no control or visibility of it from that point onwards. There has to be a contractual relationship between Apple and each Radio Station for Apple to pass information about the songs sold back to the radio station. I have no idea how detailed that information is. Does it list every transaction, by every device, by time of day? Does it report transactions, or tagging events, or both? Or do they just get a $ total each month and a cheque for the affiliate fees?

Excluding the broadcaster from the process, and obfuscating the outcome, diminishes the value for radio. It turns us into an customer acquisition vehicle, without getting rich information on listener behaviour.

There’s also the small problem of ne’er do wells “stealing” the meta-data. Let’s assume that someone nefarious decides to strip that meta-data, and amend the affiliate ID to be their own. You might use an apparently legitimate streaming portal, or attractive device, and that money would go to the middle-man, not the radio station. The value of meta-data is increasing, and we should be more careful about whom we exchange it with. In my opinion, broadcasting meta-data risks destroying value. I do agree that meta-data should be open, but I generally think that you should know who you’re providing it to. (I’m going to blog about the side-effects of this shortly).

As you’d expect, I think the RadioTAG model is fairer. It keeps our meta-data relatively secure, whilst still allowing legitimate users (like listeners and Apple) to have access to all the information they need. It scales well, because it’s not transmitting vendor specific information over the air. The broadcaster can see who is requesting what meta-data when, and use that to track listener behaviour in real-time. And very importantly, it lets people tag anything interesting they hear on the radio, not just the songs.

I’m excited that Apple are into radio. I’m excited that the Nano is such a great little device. I’m excited for the prospects of Tagging on the Nano. I just want to make sure we make it great for listeners, as well as for radio stations and for Apple.

5 replies on “Apple iPod Nano – now with FM and Tagging. Is that good?”

>to support Microsoft’s new Zune HD

Gee there’s a punt and a half. Not where I’d invest and time and effort right now.

This is great news. Whilst it might not represent the perfect business model – particulatrly for broadcasters – it is a huge step in realising that radio is still relevant. In fact radio has just hit the cool school big time! As Nick says the ulitimate will be DAB and HD radio on nano, but baby steps might just take us there. Lets hope the sales of the new nano’s are encouragement enough for Apple to consider digital platforms in the next generation.

Hi we (Jump2Go) designed the RDS Tagging system in question.

The contractual arrangement between the broadcaster and Apple, is primarily to get the commitment from the broadcaster to Tag, and so the sales commissions can find their way back to the broadcaster.

The meta-data we encrypt *before* we send it into the RDS system, so only Apple (or others we provide the keys to) can decrypt it.

In this case its the intangibles that really matter, that “Radio” is fun/cool for the iPod generation.

Seems to be striking that very chord with a lot of people so far. Mission accomplished.

Allen Hartle

I wonder if Rockbox can be installed on this one.

This could be a hack to try nice dev, independently from Apple.

Music tagging with title and artist information is now easy to implement by broadcasters. iTune tagging using the RDS-ODA feature is just one method promoted by Apple and RadioText/RT+ is another RDS-ODA feature method promoted by the RDS Forum and standardised just now since August 2009.
The latter is an open standard that can since three years at least be freely used by broadcasters and manufacturers.
Now what is great with this Apple nano is that it implemented both technologies. We have tested this already.
The RDS features used in the iPod nano need to be slightly fine tuned on the software design level, as Apple does not seem to have a good understanding yet of what RDS really offers to FM radio as an added value.
This is only a matter now of few very little additional development steps.
Otherwise this is a great implementation that works wonderfully on FM radio.
Hope that other iPod products will use FM radio in this kind of way as well.

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