Pandora CTO downplays competition with Spotify, Rhapsody

Pandora's CTO discusses how to achieve cross-platform success when designing for mobile.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

SAN FRANCISCO -- Pandora has arguably already achieved cross-platform success, but its focus on mobile is really the digital music service's strength. 

In fact, based on the comments of Pandora chief technology officer Tom Conrad during a fireside chat at MobileBeat 2012 on Tuesday afternoon, one might guess that the company might not have survived this long if it weren't for mobile.

Comparing the evolution of the Web as a print-based medium and how mobile has followed suit in the place of the Web, developers are now trying to focus on what features are native to the experience. In other words, what qualities define mobile as a standalone medium rather than just a Web-based one.

Part of Pandora's continued success since it launched in 2005 was really the jump to mobile when it debuted an iPhone app in summer 2008.

Conrad recalled a story in which a Pandora listener at the time of the app launch admitted that the last time the listened to Pandora through a Web browser was actually 2005 -- reflecting that the jump to mobile really offered the digital radio service a renaissance. Even Conrad admitted that the Web version of Pandora wasn't all that great in the early years.

"It's this reminder that if Pandora circa-2005 launched as a competitor, we'd kick its ass," Conrad quipped.

The growth of the mobile space itself has also benefitted Pandora. "Each media finds its own advertising unit," Conrad posited, arguing that advertisers are finally tackling more mobile campaigns.

But as the digital music market gets more crowded both on the desktop and on mobile devices, VentureBeat executive editor Dylan Tweney asked Conrad about how Pandora is responding to Spotify after it entered the U.S. market last year.

When Pandora launched in 2005, Conrad cited that the dominant players in Internet radio were Yahoo and AOL. Since then, competitors like iHeartRadio and Last.Fm have also come along.

Based on the first two alone, it would be easy to assume that Pandora could outlast most competitors. Conrad admitted that Pandora executives definitely keep an eye on what is going on in digital music consumption, hinting that no one should ever get too comfortable.

Nevertheless, he replied that the service isn't worried about the company's place in the market.

"Spotify and Rhapsody can fight it out in the on-demand, subscription world," Conrad remarked, asserting that Pandora will continue to "intensely" focus on personalizing Internet radio.

"Philosophically at Pandora, everything we invest in, we think we should be the best in the world," Conrad said, citing that last month, the digital music service generated an average listening rate of 700 minutes per month per user. 

He added that Pandora has benefitted primarily from word of mouth, continuing that "it's people around the Thanksgiving dinner table talking about Pandora and the things they love."

His main tidbit of advice to digital media entrepreneuers is not to get too wrapped up in the competition -- especially if they're not direct competitors. 

"If you focus on being the best in the world at something, it usually takes care of itself," Conrad concluded.

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