Wednesday, December 13, 2006

GCap launches Mi-Xfm

GCap Media this week launched what it is calling an "interactive online radio player". Mi-Xfm (enough of the 'my' prefix already!) is actually much closer to an online jukebox, randomly shuffling tracks consistent with the Xfm brand which users can rate or skip in a manner familiar to users of Pandora, LAUNCHcast and Critically, it features no DJs and no advertising - commercial radio without the commercials (and come to think of it, the radio).

So, what's the game plan? Well, primarily it appears to be a brand building exercise, attempting to position Xfm as a brand whose focus is on music and putting the listener in control. Not that the whole enterprise is a lost leader; whilst the player may be free of spot advertising, it is sponsored (by Xbox 360 for its first 2 months - hence the player's unpleasant lime green hue) and carries banner advertising. Users must also register in order to use the player, enabling GCap to find out more about the Xfm demographic and start building a relationship with them via email/text etc.

So, it is any good? Sadly many users won't ever find out as getting the player up and running required almost as much tenacity as installing Channel 4 on demand last week. For starters, it's another Microsoft DRM fest, insisting on a Windows PC running Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player. They do, however, gets points for the candour/humour of their Technical Requirements blurb:

"There is currently no Mac or Linux support as we're using Windows Media format and we need to put some Digital Rights Management over it to prevent our friends in the record industry having sleepness (sic) nights."

"Does not work with Netscape, Mozilla, Opera or any of the other good browsers out there because they don't like integrating Windows Media Player as an object, and/or some of the mad Javascript to make it all work. Try it, but it probably won't work."

Bizarrely, it also didn't work with Windows Media Player 11 and I had to roll back to version 10 (having only just upgraded at the behest of the 4oD software).

The final hurdle to clear was preparing the browser. In order to successfully launch the player you must switch off IE's pop-up blocker or temporarily allow pop-ups not only for the Xfm site but also for, which is where the player is hosted (Mi-Xfm is actually a re-badged version of an off-the-shelf product from RCS called iSelector).

Once finally up and running (assuming you haven't thrown your PC out of the window by this point), the listening experience comes as a pleasant surprise. The audio is quick to load and the sound quality is good. There are four streams to choose from - Chill, Loud, Hits and X-list - which by and large do what they say on the tin. The main interface controls work well, but its very easy to see the joins on the elements which didn't come as standard. Clicking on the Playlist or Reactivate links launches (another) pop-up which lacks the visual finesse of the main playback window. The Playlist window also gives false hope by presenting each artist name as a link which disappointingly all point to the Xfm homepage.

This highlights a key shortcoming of the Mi-Xfm service. It's entering a space already very well served by the likes of Pandora, LAUNCHcast and which all offer a greater degree of sophistication and contextual depth. Unsurprisingly (but still disappointingly) GCap have opted to placate the record labels by limiting the skip/rest functionality of Mi-Xfm. The FAQ states that "By agreement with the recording industry, this service cannot be an on-demand jukebox and we don’t want your player to run out of songs or have so few that it plays the same ones over and over" which inadvertently draws attention to the limited size of the catalogue.

For all it's faults, GCap deserves praise for trying something new with Mi-Xfm. Whether it's radio or not remains a moot point (see earlier post). It's certainly poses interesting questions about the future of radio advertising and the role of on-air talent. At a time when most radio podcasts are comprised of DJ banter with no music it's interesting to see the opposite configuration being tried in the streaming space. My suspicion is it will prove fairly popular with existing Xfm listeners who will be sold on the music they love without the ads. Whether it will make an impression in the (increasingly crowded) wider online music market I'm less sure.


Anonymous said...

interesting review, discovered via Flickr link. Not for me though - a Mac user through and through! :G)

nickpiggott said...

Thanks for the review, and you're pretty much on the money. There's some things about it we don't think are great (all the Microsoftiness of it all), and it's most definately a BETA. So the intention is to fix all the buglets, glitches and annoyances over the next couple of months. We just wanted to chuck something out there and see what happened. And the tech requirements copy is just beinng honest - we'd love to get it working on Firefox running on Ubuntu with OGG, but that's a bit of a way off.