Microsoft is removing the FM tuner app from its Windows mobile phones. According to an article in the trade press, the app has been removed from the latest development build of the OS, and it’s gone for good. So, what does this mean for radio?
It’s bad PR for us
Tech journalists don’t “get” radio. They see it as nothing new, and their assumption is that nobody listens any more. If this is reported, it carries the subtext that “Microsoft removes an old-fashioned thing from their phones”, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We’ve got ourselves to blame for the above, though. We’ve failed to care about the user experience on connected devices. An FM tuner is, when you step back, an insanely bizarre user experience: requiring people to remember random numbers between 87 and 108 to find a station. On a connected device like a mobile phone, the radio industry could make this experience much better, but we’ve mostly chosen not to. It’s the poor user experience, I believe, that is the reason why an iPhone doesn’t have an FM radio inside.
It isn’t as bad as it sounds
This isn’t the removal of FM capability from Windows Mobile phones. The FM tuner continues to be part of the Bluetooth chip inside the device, and so you’ll still be able to download FM tuner apps from the Windows app store. All that’s happening here is that there won’t be a default FM tuner app pre-installed on the phone.
This adds an extra step to get FM onto a listener’s phone. But it does foster some competition in the Windows Mobile FM tuner app space. The enterprising app maker will be able to use RadioDNS and other technologies to produce a great user experience, and get a level playing field when trying to get installations.
Windows still remains the only mobile OS with an FM receiver as standard.
It ignores the reality of the international market
According to a study in 2011, 94% of Indian radio listeners tune into (FM) radio on their mobile phone. Only 16% do so on a radio receiver. FM radio on mobiles is also popular in places like Latin America and Africa; a Firefox employee telling me that FM radio was “one of the most requested features” in those territories. It’s no surprise that the cheaper the phone becomes, the more likely it is to have access to FM radio.
By withdrawing development of their basic FM tuner app, Microsoft is essentially treating these nations as unimportant to the future of Windows on phones. That is a mistake, in my view.
Radio needs to step up
The primary argument for FM radio in cellphones is “it’s useful in times of emergency”, which is a weak and niche argument (not least because automated, networked US radio has repeatedly shown itself as relatively incapable of actually reacting at times of emergency).
I have doubts that broadcast radio inside mobiles is the white knight we think it is. We’re trying to marry the most interactive device we own with a lean-back medium that’s specifically designed to be consumed while doing something else. But that shouldn’t stop us improving that experience as much as possible.
We should be working to make the default FM tuner app an amazing experience. We should provide metadata like logos and service information to already existing industry initiatives like RadioDNS and Emmis’s NextRadio app; and we should fund them better so they can do more.
We should put into place optional service following from FM to IP, so you never lose your favorite station. We should build FM capabilities into our own apps, working with the Universal Smartphone Project. We should capture data (like the Indians) to help argue our case in future. We should at the very least ensure that RDS is present on all our services.
But most of all, we should be singing with one voice about broadcast radio’s benefit within mobile phones: and highlighting that for Microsoft to remove an app that delivers a free feature is a boneheaded decision.