Thumbplay Music: Still a Cloud-In-Progress

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Conceptualizing the cloud is one thing.

But building it is something entirely different, and Thumbplay is currently struggling through the early stages of delivering ubiquity.  An early test of Thumbplay Music by Digital Music News was mostly problematic, though some bright spots poked through.  At this developmental moment, consider Thumbplay Music a ‘cloud-in-progress’.

Thumbplay is best known for its ringtone service, a completely different delivery proposition.  Thumbplay Music, which quietly enters beta (from a private beta) on Thursday, instead offers roughly 8 million tracks (major, indie, unsigned artists) for $9.99 a month, all cloud-enabled.  Theoretically, that means access from anywhere, and the ability to construct playlists from a seemingly endless collection.  Other bells-and-whistles include the ability to cache content for offline listening, the ability to import playlists from iTunes, and the ability to create on-the-fly playlists around a favorite song (powered by the Echo Nest).

The Thumbplay Music app is currently limited to the Blackberry, though development will eventually encompass the iPhone and other devices.  On the mobile side, Thumbplay Music currently rides on AT&T and its 3G network, though available WiFi is the preferred connection.  A PC-based version complements the mobile offering.

Testing occurred across two Blackberry Bold 9000s, across several weeks and two major metropolitan areas (Los Angeles, New York, and a plane ride in-between).  The testing also involved discussions with the Thumbplay engineering team.

A large percentage of the time, collections could not be accessed, for a variety of reasons.  In fairness, this is still a beta-level release, though Thumbplay is probably pushing the marketing and release schedule too fast.  Thumbplay executive vice president of Business Development Chris Phenner was promoting the service aggressively at the Digital Music Forum in New York last week, and the company offered private beta invites to conference attendees.

Actually, the best results happened in New York.  In Manhattan and the surrounding Queens, access was mostly uninterrupted, and a cloud-produced soundtrack lasted for hours.  Genres were accessible, and even smart playlists could be constructed on-the-fly.

The Blackberry itself may offer a good starting point from an engineering perspective, though the iPhone and Android are arguably better entertainment and music platforms.  The Blackberry gets the job done, but a smaller screen, a business-like environment, and scroll-wheel reliance dampens the romance a bit.

On top of that, it seems harder to just ‘fly around’ across the Blackberry app, though an iPhone comparison is still forthcoming.   Either way, once humming the Blackberry Bold can crank the music, and its speakerphone can even be modulated to offer a small personal boom-box without distortion.

In New York, issues could mostly be blamed on mobile connectivity.  When 3G dropped out, so did easy access, a major vulnerability for Thumbplay.  Here, a major problem emerges – for Thumbplay and every other competitor.  Even a perfect execution still relies on the vagaries of mobile broadband, though users are unlikely to forgive the dropouts (regardless of the source).  In the end, a daunting competitor is the grounded, mobile-free iPod, a massive collection with no dropouts whatsoever.

In dead zones, one simple solution is to jump into a cached selection, which Thumbplay Music makes easy.  Even auto-playlists can be saved ahead-of-time for later access, and Thumbplay performed quite solidly on a coast-to-coast plane ride.  Battery life performed moderately well, though anyone needing all-day phone access will have to limit playback, at least without recharging.

In the endless spread of Los Angeles, the story was entirely different.  A buyer in this market would almost certainly demand a refund, at least at this early stage.  Thumbplay understandably struggled on non-3G, regular AT&T connections, though it was then unable to recover on 3G and even WiFi replacements.  Instead, the app mostly produced top-level menus but white screens otherwise, across both testing handhelds.  Other functions, like phone calls and texting, performed as normal.

The disparity in results could be attributable to a number of factors.  Perhaps the denser New York simply offers better connectivity, though the Los Angeles problems were happening in densely-populated communities (through several hours of testing in Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Manhattan Beach, Hollywood, and LAX-surrounding).  Thumbplay is also based in New York, potentially offering a better testing and feedback loop for the development team.  But these are just guesses.

Review by publisher Paul Resnikoff.