SXSW: Pandora in the Car Could Kill Sirius

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Pandora CTO Tom Conrad
“Sirius will be around for a long time,” said Pandora CTO Tom Conrad in answer to a suggestion by an audience member here that his company will kill Sirius.

I’m not sure I believe him. Conrad described his company’s foray into automobiles in a panel here in Austin today, and by the sound of things Pandora will soon do everything Sirius does (except maybe Howard Stern) and for a lot less money. In fact Pandora in the car would give users significantly more choice and control over what they hear in their music stream. Pandora will emerge as a more compelling replacement for terrestrial radio that Sirius.

The Pandora service will be integrated into two car stereo systems to start – one from Alpine and one from Pioneer, both of which will go on sale next month. Conrad says the Pandora app will run on your smartphone, but will plug into the car stereos by way of a 32-pin cable. When the smartphone is plugged in, the screen will lock on the smartphone and the Pandora will be displayed on the dashboard of the car.

Ford has also made Pandora part of its new driver interface and dashboard design called MyFord Touch. Here too, the Pandora app runs on a mobile phone, but once plugged into the Ford system, a voice-recognition system can be used to interact with the Pandora app, and the car's pre-set radio buttons can be assigned to Pandora's virtual stations.

Pandora depends on a wireless signal to work, and there are big pieces of the country that have no such coverage, so on some long road trips the Pandora stream might be interrupted. But Conrad points out, rightly, that there are places in the country where even terrestrial radio waves don’t reach, and Sirius’s line of sight satellite signal certainly doesn’t reach everyplace all the time. Conrad also points out that mobile Pandora buffers its stream, so that even if your wireless connection fails momentarily, Pandora keeps playing.

Sirius XM also has an app for iPhone and iPod Touch.

The Pandora service started as a desktop-based web app, but with the advent of smartphones, has grown rapidly into a popular mobile app. Today, Conrad says, Pandora has 22 million mobile accounts, and 26 million desktop-based accounts. Conrad says he doesn’t know if mobile users will overtake desktop users in the next year because both groups are growing rapidly.

Pandora offers a free version of its app with ads, and a subscription version with no ads. The company inserts audio ads into its programming stream when there is no screen to display ads, such as in the in-car service. Conrad says he believes Pandora would have to insert only about 90 seconds of audio ads into every hour of programming to keep the service profitable.

Pandora employs 160 people, 70 of which sell ads.

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