Schiller’s Wheel

Phil Schiller is in the news as he is changing his work situation with Apple and leaving the crucial and deceptively titled role of head of “marketing”. It is a good opportunity to remember one of his contributions to creation of the iPod. As Wired reported, back in October 2006:

The idea for the scroll wheel was suggested by Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, who in an early meeting said quite definitively, “The wheel is the right user interface for this product.”

Schiller also suggested that menus should scroll faster the longer the wheel is turned, a stroke of genius that distinguishes the iPod from the agony of competing players. Schiller’s scroll wheel didn’t come from the blue, however; scroll wheels are pretty common in electronics, from scrolling mice to Palm thumb wheels. Bang & Olufsen BeoCom phones have an iPod-like dial for navigating lists of phone contacts and calls. Back in 1983, the Hewlett Packard 9836 workstation had a keyboard with a similar wheel for scrolling text.

The scrolling wheel certainly was an essential component of the success of the iPod. 

The defining feature of the device was having “thousands of songs in your pocket” and the scrolling wheel was the physical interface to interact with the songs. 

The possibility to control the velocity of the scrolling and scroll down hundreds of items with a single finger movement was extraordinary and absurdly more pleasant and useful than existing alternatives. At the same time the wheel (after the second generation) became a very powerful and easy to use tool: it served to navigate different pages/levels, control volume, play/pause, go next/previous song and go to a certain point in the song.. 

The click wheel was the physical, tactile link between the music, the iPod features and the listener. And it was intuitive, powerful, precise and convenient.

It certainly helps that the iPod was a very focused device with a well thought out interface. As the New York Times reported in 2003:

”Steve” — that would be Steve Jobs — ”made some very interesting observations very early on about how this was about navigating content,” Ive says. ”It was about being very focused and not trying to do too much with the device — which would have been its complication and, therefore, its demise. The enabling features aren’t obvious and evident, because the key was getting rid of stuff.”

Later he said: ”What’s interesting is that out of that simplicity, and almost that unashamed sense of simplicity, and expressing it, came a very different product. But difference wasn’t the goal. It’s actually very easy to create a different thing. What was exciting is starting to realize that its difference was really a consequence of this quest to make it a very simple thing.”

Two decades have passed since the launch of the original iPod. As far as I know, the last iPod with a click wheel was launched in 2009 (there was also a Shuffle revision in 2010). Predicting that cell phones would make iPods obsolete, Apple created itself the future by launching the iPhone in 2007.

Now our main music devices are cell phones, which people automatically carry themselves all day. The devices have large multitouch screen interfaces (volume up and down remain as physical buttons) and fast internet access.   

The music we have access to has also changed as well: million of songs, instantaneously available, hosted on a central server.

What remains is the challenge, the opportunity: to discover new and better ways to integrate music, software and listeners. 

Is there something “missing” in the interface? Some breakthrough waiting to happen?

Libraries in The Stream

It is funny that now Spotify “allows” us to like more than 10,000 songs, but offers no practical way to browse or manage a collection of songs this large.

The liked songs library is presented as a single list, which you can choose how to sort and there is a filter search. Other than that, it show some 20 songs per screen (I counted 19 on my monitor and ‘actual size’ view). To scroll 10,000 songs will take more than 500 screens. 

The other main library sections, Artists and Albums, are less essential, at least in my opinion. Following artists should give you updates when they release music, and listening to albums is much less prominent than listening to songs. And you can always like every song in an album, so they appear in your main Liked songs library…

Liked songs is very useful: it is the most practical way to keep track of all/most things from your listening history that you actually enjoyed. Other methods to access your listening history in Spotify are controlled by Spotify and their implementation changes all the time. 

The liked songs serves not only as a history of the listening but also as a history of the listener. As time goes by and the liked songs are accumulated, there is some personal memories being stored there as well, an audio scrapbook maybe.

The liked song library also has a symbolic value: it is a very small pond of personal, familiar songs within a gigantic, ever-expanding ocean of unfathomable content (more than 60 million songs and more than 40 thousand songs added daily).

Of course, a big priority of Spotify is to create ever improving recommendation tools, advanced enough that they may “know” in advance the songs, artists, genres, playlists the user will like. Maybe if you are trying to build the “perfect” recommendation system, the archive of liked songs is just a distraction. Time spent listening to liked songs is time not spent listening recommended playlists or other innovative promotions. And already-liked songs probably also have little algorithmic value…

But that gives another valuable distinction to our pond metaphor: it serves not only to protect us from the vastness of the unknown; it is a safe harbour from the impersonality of the deep data/machine learning…

In the past few weeks I have been experimenting to see which mainstream streaming service offers the best combination of functionality and sound quality (Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer each have strengths and weakness) and as I contemplate switching to one or another as the main service, the only data that feels relevant to migrate from one to another is the collection of liked songs. (Soundiiz and SongShift work both fine).

Ideas on The Future of Playlists

From “Our New “post-playlist” Reality” by Cherie Hu (November 2018):

“First, there are oft-overinflated expectations around listener engagement. For instance, I recently wrote about how some flagship Spotify playlists like EDM-focused mint were getting disproportionately lower engagement, whereas other playlists with only one-fourth of the following were generating 4x the streams for a given track over the same time period. Certain playlists like Today’s Top Hits and RapCaviar do outperform on engagement and impact, but I would argue they are the exception rather than the rule for streaming playlists. 

There also may be less listener interest in seeking out playlists overall. According to Google Trends, the search popularity of the word “playlist” on the worldwide web and on YouTube has steadily declined over the last several years, to just 50% and 25% of their peak, respectively (see screenshots on the next page). 

This decline may be simply because the concept of a playlist is now more normalized in global music culture, to the point where users don’t need to search what the word means to understand what it offers. But it’s nonetheless a sobering reminder that the idea of a playlist (which, at the end of the day, is simply a collection of songs ) is nothing new or unique to our present time, nor is proactive consumer interest in the format really growing.” 

Perhaps some relevant part of this problem with diminished/diminishing listener engagement and interest are based on usability limitations of the way playlists have been so far implemented by Spotify and the other music streaming services?

One problem: it is extremely easy to discover, enjoy and “like” a hundred playlists or more. But there is no way to navigate this list of playlists in a practical way. Just an endless chronological/alphabetical list of playlists names tucked in a corner of the screen. 

Another: suppose there are five or ten playlists of new songs that the listeners wants to listen regularly. There is no way to resume listening where she stopped each of those lists! For example, RapCaviar has some 50 songs. Yesterday she listened to the first 9 and half songs and moved to another list. Today she returns to Rapcaviar. Spotify really wants her to start listening from song 1 again? Does she have to remember that she listened up to song the middle of song 10? (And then we extrapolate the problem to the other five or ten lists she “follows”)

This also applies to lengthier, highly curated playlists of catalog. Maybe some 400 song behemoth “history of Motown”? It would be much more useful to be able to resume listening where she stopped last time (a bit more here on this topic). 

Every podcast in Spotify has this functionality, why playlists don’t?

Then there is the problem of playlists updates. Our listener returns to RapCaviar one or two weeks later: several songs are gone, replaced by newer ones. The remaining one from two weeks ago are in another “place” in the list, probably “down”. Again, is there a way for she to listen only the “new songs”? Or the songs she has not listened yet? 

By the way, suppose two weeks ago there was a wonderful song on the ‘list that she really loved. But she did not “save” it then in her library and now the song is “lost” for her. These two verbs, in this context, are just ridiculous. Access to previous versions of a playlist would be very useful.

Another thing that could drive engagement is a better (actually any) way to navigate to “sister” playlists and collections of playlists. “History of Motown” could be flanked by “History of Stax” and “History of Philadelphia Sound” etc. A page collecting all classic rock-related This Is [Artist].  Or an easy way to move from “1983 Pop Hits” to “1984 Pop Hits”, or to “1983 Country Hits”…. 

Again, podcasts episodes are ‘always’ automatically organised in a series of episodes/seasons, but playlists must float alone with no organisation…

Also a related catalog detail: Can I listen to “This is U2” but only the songs I have not listened (to death, actually) before? Or those I have not “liked” before? (And vice-versa.)

Finally, playlists feel too focused on the “give something to listen right now”, but most of the time people likely are already listening something satisfying. The way to listen music “later” could be dramatically improved. (Nowadays, almost every other user interaction in Spotify, Apple Music erases whatever songs have been placed in the queue – I wrote a bit about it here.)

I am certainly extrapolating from my own use, but these details really derail the overall listening experience. So maybe playlists have been both over-hyped AND under-developed…

It is funny to think that in the future “playlists” may sound a relic from a different era, but right now they could be meaningfully improved. And maybe they will evolve so much that the name ‘playlist’ stopping making much sense, but then someone will need to come up with a catchy alternative.

Play It Next, Sam. The Case for Better Queuing.

The story of Rdio is still making me think about “queues”; how much better they can be and how more useful they would be if so. A great queue implementation would be:

  • Synchronised across all the user’s devices.
  • Permanent (when you reopen the app tomorrow, it remains there)
  • Constant: a list of queued songs remains constant, no matter if you “create a station” (this kills Apple Music Queues), start playing another playlists (erases Tidal queues), starts playing a mix (erases Spotify queue) or enter flow mode (that’s for Deezer). 
  • “Undo” would be nice: Sometimes you accidentally forward a song, press shuffle, starts a song from the listening history (which is usually listed above the queue etc.) and it messes up the queue a bit or a lot. The undo button restores the queue just as it was before.
  • It could be “powerful”: play next, play at the end, add whole album, add whole playlist etc.
  • Why not the option to “save” the queue, “pause” it (the next songs will automatically be pulled from the playlist, algorithm, whatever) and “resume” it.
  • The “past” (listening history) should be presented as consistently as the “future”/queue.  (Apple Music iOS is going on this direction)
  • It would be nice to protect the “present” too: accidental mouse/keyboard clicks should not forward a song, or start playing any other song (at least as an option)
  • The queue feature should be “always” available (not the case in Apple Music stations for example)
  • The queue icon/indicator should always be easily visible and/or accessible.
  • Friends could make suggestions for your queue… (RIP iTunes DJ)
  • Maybe an “alternative queue” you can alternate to. (You can keep “focus” stuff there, or gym material etc.)
  • Even a “long queue” where you can add all suggestions from twitter, blogs and newsletters and selectively bring to “main queue”…

Seriously, how many hours do people spend listening to streaming music everyday? In how many sessions throughout the day? A strong queue functionality would be a great tool to help users in their daily routines. It would even help them to explore more different music and try other recommendations because they would have a better sense of control of their upcoming music and be less “hostages” of the particular listening context/mode they happen to be right now.

The Best Albums of 2016, Now and Then

A fun exercise. The 100 best albums from 2016 according to But two different snapshots: the ranking as it was at the very end of that year, versus the ranking of these albums as of July 30, 2020.

Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” remains number one, but David Bowie’s “(Blackstar)” went from number two to number three. That’s a -1  position change and a -50% ranking change.

The highest absolute jump was “Telephone” – Nomame with +67 positions. The highest relative jump was “Nonagon Infinity” by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: 80%.

Highest absolute fall: “Cautionary Tale” from Dylan Leblanc: -346 positions. Highest relative fall: “Suicide Songs” from Money: -449%.

One caveat: these ranking combine “recognised” charts (traditional lists from mainstream publications and websites) and charts from members of the site’s community.

Spotify 2Q 2020

A quick summary for easy reference:

  • 138 mm premium subscribers
  • 170 mm ad supported MAUs
  • Total 299 MAUs
  • Total growth:  5% quarter over quarter; 29% year over year.
  • Within Premium, average revenue per user (“ARPU”) of €4.41 in Q2 was down 9% Y/Y (down 7% excluding the impact from FX rates).
  • At the end of Q2, our workforce consisted of 6,049 FTEs (full-time employees) globally.
  • Q3  2020 Guidance:
    • Total MAUs: 312-317 million
    • Total Premium Subscribers: 140-144 million
    • Total Revenue: €1.85-€2.05 billion
      • Assumes approximately 260 bps headwind to growth Y/Y due to movements in foreign exchange rates
    • Gross Margin: 23.1-25.1%
    • Operating Profit/Loss: €(70)-€(150) million
  • Q4  2020 Guidance:
    • Total MAUs: 328-348 million
    • Total Premium Subscribers: 146-153 million
    • Total Revenue: €2.05-€2.25 billion
      • Assumes approximately 360 bps headwind to growth Y/Y due to movements in foreign exchange rates
    • Gross Margin: 23.7-25.7%
    • Operating Profit/Loss: €(45)-€(145) million

Consumption trends by platform are beginning to normalize as well; in-car listening at the end of the quarter was less than 10% below pre-COVID levels having recovered from a 50% decline at the trough in April. 

…expansion of our Microsoft Xbox Game Pass relationship

Separately, the introduction of our TV app on Comcast’s proprietary X1 set-top box marked the first integration with a pay-TV provider in the US, demonstrating continued progress against our ubiquity strategy. 

Product and Platform 

We continue to accelerate product innovation in order to enrich the consumer experience and serve the right content from the more than 60 million unique tracks and more than 1.5 million podcasts on our platform. Through experimentation, we aim to scale features that will lead to improved intake, retention, conversion, and thus higher LTV. For example, we rolled out lyrics this quarter in 26 countries across Southeast Asia, Latin America, and India covering more than 100 million of our users. 

We continue to make improvements to our join flow and onboarding experience and have seen a demonstrable improvement to both short term and long term retention as a result. Once on the platform, we constantly add or improve features such as our recent announcement that we have removed the cap on the number of tracks a user can download, now offering the ability to save an unlimited number of songs, albums and podcasts to their collection of favorites (up from a max of 10,000 tracks previously). 

With COVID-19 protective measures still in place, we launched a Listening Together microsite that visualizes when two Spotify listeners start to play the same song at the exact same time – which happens on average 30,000 times every second on Spotify. A further enhancement to the user experience, Spotify launched a Group Session feature that allows up to five Premium users to share control over the music being played. Group Session participants can control what’s playing in real-time as well as contribute to a collaborative playlist for the group. Another product feature we’re experimenting with is Canvas, which turns formerly static song pages into engaging video-art showcases with 8 second visual loops. Spotify users and artists can now share Canvas artwork to Instagram stories, a feature that is unique to the Spotify platform and sharing experience. 

Ubiquity remains a core strategy, and we continue to find ways for consumers to seamlessly connect with our platform. This quarter we expanded our Spotify Free offering through Amazon Alexa devices beyond the US, Australia and New Zealand. Amazon Alexa devices will now support Spotify Free in Austria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain and the UK. Additionally, we are also excited to be launching Spotify (Free and Premium) on Alexa in India. 


Today, 21% of our Total MAUs engage with podcast content, up from 19% of MAUs in Q1 2020, and consumption continues to grow at triple digit rates Y/Y. We see strong MAU growth in podcast content across all regions for Spotify. Overall supply of new podcast content recovered in Q2 after a slight impact related to COVID-19 in the previous quarter. There have been a healthy number of releases for Catalog, as well as Spotify Originals within the quarter. We launched 110 podcast playlists across 6 markets (including 49 new O&E podcasts outside the US) on a variety of themes and topics to continue to drive podcast discovery for users. Currently, Spotify’s podcast catalog has over 1.5 million shows, 50% of which launched in 2020. Our acquisition of Anchor last year has helped accelerate content growth on the platform with approximately three quarters of new podcast releases being powered by Anchor. Spotify announced an additional 9 exclusives like Do You See What I See and Rapot to our Creator Accelerator Program in Indonesia, launched our first original podcast, Search Engine Sex, in Australia, and released our first exclusive, XRey, in Spain. 

As COVID-19 has impacted the creator community and the way in which users interact with Spotify, we created user experiences that allow listeners to adapt to the current environment. 

Spotify launched an “At Home Music & Podcast Entertainment” hub, which has had over 20M unique visitors. Additionally, we created a “COVID-19 Guide” podcast hub to serve as a resource to those wanting to engage and understand more about COVID-19 related information and topics. As we mentioned last quarter, we launched the Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief project, through which we have partnered with organizations that offer financial relief to those in the music and creator community around the world. We pledged to match dollar-for-dollar public donations made to these organizations, up to a total Spotify contribution of $10 million. We also launched Artist Fundraising Pick (a feature that enables artists to raise money to support themselves, their bands, their crews and charitable organizations) in April, and to date have seen more than 91,000 artists take advantage. 

Two sided market place

The number of artists and their teams utilizing our Spotify for Artists tools on a monthly basis has grown to more than 690,000, growth of 68% Y/Y, and these creators are finding ways to unlock new channels for discovery. Growth in the number of artists making up our top tier (those accounting for the top 10% of streams) is accelerating; that cohort now stands at over 43,000 artists, up 43% from 30,000 one year ago. Our product and platform are driving discovery, diversifying taste, and helping up-and-coming artists reach new audiences. Gone are the days of Top 40, it’s now the Top 43,000. We continue to add new features to our suite of Marketplace products to better serve the needs of these creators and their teams. We also expanded our Sponsored Recommendation functionality to Canada this quarter, and look forward to launching in further markets soon. We also began piloting new targeting features in the Sponsored Recommendation product that allow for more flexibility to suit the unique needs of marketers. Conversion remains high, and the number of artists taking advantage of these features grew more than 37% Q/Q. 

A Rquiem For Rdio

Found on r/AppleMusic this fantastic article by Bryan Clark about Rdio, the defunct music streaming pioneer. There are several interesting details about the Rdio service but perhaps the most revealing for me was discovering that this music service took “queuing” seriously almost a decade ago:

Rdio’s playback queue was vastly superior to Spotify’s. It was a wonderful companion to Discovery, it synced across devices, and was simple to use.

One core component of a music service’s design: what do you do when you’ve just found an album, you want to check it out, but aren’t ready to add it to your Favorites? With Rdio, you’d just put it in The Queue. My workflow for finding music was something like this: go through the Discover sections, queue up a bunch of albums, and then know that over the next few days, I’d work through them all. If I liked something, it’d go in my collection. If not, I’d just skip the album and go onto something else.

You might be saying to yourself, “Spotify and Apple Music have queues, too!” No, not like this they didn’t! See, Rdio’s queue synced, which meant that I could queue up a bunch of tunes on my Mac, then hop in the car and hear them on my phone. Meanwhile, when I make a queue on Spotify, if the app crashes or I change devices, my queue is gone.

Also, let’s talk about Spotify’s queue model, because its design is really aggravating: […]

Maybe there is a reason why no other streamer tried to “solve” queue since then*. As The Verge’s post-mortem recalls: 

Looking back, some former employees say Rdio sometimes focused on the wrong things. It invested many product cycles in refining its queue — a place to collect things you want to listen to later. Every other music streaming service offers a queue that’s a simple list of tracks. But if you dragged an album or a playlist into Rdio’s queue, Rdio would recognize it as a distinct object, so you could drag and drop an album above a track, or a full playlist below an album. “At the end of the day, that was not a major differentiating factor,” says Wilson Miner, who led design at Rdio from its launch until May 2012. “If we hadn’t had something like that, nobody would have noticed and it would have been fine. I still wish we could have solved it, but it was more of a personal quest than a brutally honest assessment of priorities.”

More from the same article:

The economics of streaming music are brutal. Record labels have nearly all the leverage, and take most of the gross revenue from streaming services. The only way to win is to achieve a massive scale — which is why Spotify has raised more than $1 billion, spending heavily to add subscribers in hopes they will lead to a sustainable business.

Rdio realized this only belatedly. “Rdio, I guess, made the mistake of trying to be sustainable too early,” Miner says. “That classic startup mistake of worrying about being profitable and having a business that makes any sense before you’ve reached this astronomical growth curve. Which is partly the trap of the business model itself — because of the content licensing deals, the margins for the business were so incredibly thin. No matter what we did, the labels made the lion’s share of the revenue. You have to make it up with extreme volume, which is why you see Spotify going after every human being in the world.”


Ultimately, it is not a game Rdio was ever built to win. The people who made it focused to a fault on making something beautiful, something that celebrated the music they love. Sigurdsson “wanted to build a music service that was social at its core but was also beautiful,” Becherer says. “There was a real focus on that.” Mary van Ogtrop, a copywriter for Rdio, says there will be no replacing the service’s attention to detail. “Rdio taught me to slow down, let it marinate, and make my final decision the right one,” she says.

By the way, reading the original article, one can notice that other Rdio ideas have been implemented on current services (autoplay, albums friends are listening, home view apparently recalls current Spotify shortcuts etc.). Not a surprise, since Rdio’s demise happened almost five years ago. Unfortunately nobody yet has cared to recreate a robust, synchronised and constant queue.

Still, recalling the story of Rdio (which I had completely forgotten) is satisfying in a way similar to solving an evolutionary puzzle: “why there is no streaming service with a historical commitment to attention to detail?” The existing streaming services have had distinct trajectories and priorities, but clearly none emphasises this particular commitment:

  • Spotify has had its own design priorities and has been successful that way.
  • Apple Music started from the Beats streaming service (which started from the Mog service) and had a joint interface with iTunes until recently. A change in management apparently has improved things in the past two years too.
  • Tidal, Deezer are smaller concerns, with long stories and lots of up and downs.
  • Qobuz, Idagio are valiant, even smaller players.
  • Youtube Music and Amazon Prime Music are works in progress for both internet giants.
  • Microsoft Music (Zune, Xbox, Groove) is no more.
  • (Pandora, whatever its merits is a US only service)

Well, apparently Rdio was different, and it lasted for a while.

 * Deezer does synchronise queues, but they stop working in “Flow” and are erased when a mix is started, so you have to rebuild them all the time.

Ranking Music Streaming Subreddit Communities by Members

As of July 28, 2020:

July 29 update for Video Reddit (just a few):

Late Era / Welcome to Chicago

Intriguing idea for a podcast:

Andy Cush: Like Winston said, the impulse to do Late Era definitely grew out of Welcome to Chicago: to give some sort of consideration—whether it’s relatively serious thought or just cracking dumb jokes—to music that might as well not exist to 99% of the sane listening population. To me, on some level, both podcasts are oblique reactions to the perverse abundance that streaming services offer us as listeners, even if we’re not talking about streaming directly most of the time on the shows. In music, as in just about every other area of our lives, nearly all of recorded history has become incredibly easy to access—oppressively so, sometimes—with a void of context that can make trivial things seem important and important things seem trivial. By diving into these bodies of work that are more or less forgotten in the cultural memory, but still just as readily available for listening as the Abbey Roads of the world, we’re willingly exposing ourselves to some of the weirdest and most disorienting contradictions of our new reality as music listeners, and trying to make sense of them.

Don’t sleep on Chicago 19:

Winston Cook-Wilson: Since November 2018, the three of us have been co-helming the controversial music and humor podcast Welcome to Chicago, which is an examination of the 36-and-counting-album discography of the band Chicago. This was inspired by a joke on our text thread after seeing a music writer post a picture of the 1989 album Chicago 19 with the caption “Don’t sleep on Chicago 19,” as if it was some deep Detroit rap mixtape people needed to check out. The project has become increasingly high-concept, featuring tons of guests, invented side characters, scripted true-crime episodes and about an album’s worth of original music. We’re still doing that and may be doing it until we are old men.

Good point:

Sam Sodomsky: As a music fan, I have always had a collector’s mindset. If I like an artist, I want to know everything they have ever done. I have probably listened to, say, Neil Young’s Fork in the Road more than most band’s best albums. When I start reading a rock memoir, I always skip ahead to see how much they get into their later albums, because usually those are the most mysterious to me. Why did they choose that cover art? Why is there an entire song about grocery shopping? Most times they don’t get into it. I also find that eventually everything comes around. The same way that I can hear Van Morrison’s ’80s albums with fresh ears, maybe someone decades from now will hear that Who album from last year and feel totally mystified by it. Maybe not. Either way, it’s good to get outside the canon mentality, especially when you’re dealing with these legacy artists.


What’s one tip that you’d give a music podcaster starting out right now?

Winston Cook-Wilson: Don’t do a music podcast about the band Chicago.

Music vs Video Streaming

It might be fun to make a brief comparisons between music and video streaming services.

If only for the reason that, since each video service has an unique content library, its users are much more used to use (!) several different services almost at same time. So, between Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+ and, in the U.S., Disney +, Hulu, HBO Max and Peacock) there is a lot of room to explore different user interfaces, features and even design philosophies.

In the music area, on the other hand, all services have basically the same libraries, basic functionalities and pricing plans, so there is much less incentive to subscribe to more than one service. And user libraries and listening histories grow over time, serving as a barrier to discourage people from switching.

A very recent article by Alan Sepinwall articulates frustrations with video streaming as of July 2020:

“The part of the streaming shell game that I’ve never been able to fully understand — and that has somehow gotten worse with each passing year and each new service debut — is just how bad the user experience is on all of them. It’s been 13 years since Netflix began offering streaming content, with Hulu and others soon to follow, yet the user interfaces consistently seem designed to make finding what you want to see — whether continuing a binge or discovering something new — a Herculean effort.”

“Simply put, there are a lot of basic practices that all streamers should be following, and that most of them don’t seem to understand in the slightest. Here’s our four-point plan to optimize user experience.”

Here are his four points:

1. Always make it easy to resume a binge.
2. But don’t make it too hard to go back and re-watch when necessary.
3. Give the customer more control of the browsing process, and a layout that makes sense.
4. Make searches easy.

For our purposes, item 3 is particularly interesting:

Each (dis)organization strategy is serving a different master, and that causes different problems. Netflix has sworn undying allegiance to its algorithm, believing the computer knows what you want to see better than you do. You can’t customize which genres or subgenres (“Witty Workplace Comedies,” et. al.) are displayed on the home screen, because the algorithm is doing the work for you. But the algorithm easily gets confused (my “Because you watched Star Trek” bar is full of foreign-language drama series, few of them with even a hint of science fiction), or takes the wrong lessons from what you’ve already watched — as in the case of a friend who can’t stop getting true crime recommendations because he enjoyed American Vandal, which existed to make fun of those kinds of shows. Netflix, like so many of the others, goes out of its way to make it impossible to find new movies or shows, since “new” is defined as “newly-added to this service.” So, actual fresh releases like Old Guard and EuroVision will be listed right alongside the 2010 box-office flop How Do You Know. Trying to skim by genre is useless, both because the algorithm picks what you see first, and because the same content keeps popping up from genre to genre. (As I write this, the original Alyssa Milano version of Charmed is listed as a TV Comedy, among other things.)

Netflix is an interesting case because this is a company, unlike all its competitors, integrally committed to a single service and its related user experience. They sweat over every detail, and deemphasising category browsing is a calculated decision. I wonder how much Spotify thinks similarly about balancing recommendation and browsing efforts…

Then again, there are differences. A video streaming library may be comprised of some 50 thousand titles, while music libraries have more than 50 millions songs. Similarly, video watchers need one or two good recommendations per day/session and music listeners can easily need dozens of good songs for the same period.

Another point is that there are two companies that are major players in both markets: Apple and Amazon. So it is interesting to observe how their video services are evolving. About Amazon Prime Video, Sepinwall writes:

“Why in the world does Prime Video still separate shows by season, so that you have to add them one at a time to your Watchlist?”

“Amazon has both the best bonus feature of any streamer — X-Ray, where pausing a scene gives you the name of every actor and character in that scene, the name of any songs playing, and other details — and one of the hardest interfaces to navigate, befitting a service that’s an afterthought in a much larger business empire.”

For Apple TV+, I quote Lucas Shaw writing for Bloomberg:

Apple TV+
What’s gone right: A buzzy show out of the gate in “The Morning Show,” endless cash reserves and a willingness to buy movies that studios can’t release in theaters.
What’s gone wrong: The service hasn’t been able to sustain its early momentum, and is still looking for an actual programming strategy or target audience.
Verdict: When’s the last time someone asked you about a show on Apple TV+? The service is something of an afterthought — not as big a misfire as the Arcade gaming service or Apple News +, but not a clear hit like Apple Music. In the end, that may not matter all that much. Apple Inc.’s push into services looks good in an earnings release, where the company has reported booming revenue and proven to Wall Street that its growth isn’t done.

(By the way, this description of Apple TV by Dustin Curtis is just brilliant.)

Besides Apple and Amazon, there is Google, which finds itself in an odd position. Youtube is a leader in music and video, but not when subscriptions are involved. As Wikipedia summarises, their subscription strategy has been convoluted so far:

YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) is a subscription service offered by the video platform YouTube. The service provides ad-free access to content across the service, as well as access to premium YouTube Originals programming produced in collaboration with the site’s creators, downloading videos and background playback of videos on mobile devices, and access to the YouTube Music music streaming service.[5]

The service was originally launched in November 2014 as Music Key, offering only advertisement-free streaming of music videos from participating labels on YouTube and Google Play Music.[6][7][8] The service was then revised and relaunched as YouTube Red on October 31, 2015, expanding its scope to offer advertisement-free access to all YouTube videos, as opposed to just music.[9]

YouTube announced the rebranding of the service as YouTube Premium on May 17, 2018, alongside the return of a separate, YouTube Music subscription service.[10][11] Later in the year, it was reported that YouTube was planning to make some of the original content associated with the service available on an ad-supported basis.