Much of the debate over the proposed XM-Sirius merger centers around whether terrestrial radio really provides the same service as its satellite cousins, or if its orbiting kin provide something so different that Gugliermo Marconi's baby just can't compete. As anyone who's driven cross country – fiddling with the dial trying to find a station that is playing something they can stand and that won't fade to static five minutes later – can attest, there are some advantages to satellite that terrestrial just can't match. Users to whom those advantages are important, the argument goes, have only two places to get them: XM or Sirius. A new company aims to change that. This blog has noted the forthcoming Slacker as a potential competitor in the satellite radio market before, but details were sparse as to how the service would actually work, and thus how similar to XM or Sirius it would be.
This article reveals several new details about how exactly the nascent technology will operate, and the picture revealed is of a robust competitor to XM/Sirius – at least as far as music is concerned.
The inner workings of Slacker are significantly different from XM/Sirius: rather than streaming multiple channels of real-time music simultaneously, Slacker will beam one channel of compressed music files, from all sorts of genres, at high speed. The receiver sifts through the stream, looking for songs that meet its master's preprogrammed tastes, which it then save to internal memory for later playback. The receiver also takes advantage of any time during which it happens to be within range of a WiFi hotspot to more aggressively add to its library, seeking out songs that match what it's looking for, rather than waiting for them to come to it via satellite. This method requires much less bandwidth than Sirius or XM, allowing Slacker to lease satellite stream from established providers rather than build its own network. Despite the vast differences under the hood between Slacker and XM/Sirius, note that both deliver a product with several marked advantages to terrestrial radio: music chosen from a library orders of magnitude wider than anything Ryan Seacrest will ever play, with the potential to be highly tailored to the tastes of the individual listener, that will play uninterrupted and static free, even on a cross country drive.
Indeed, as far as variety goes, Slacker looks to have a significant edge over XM/Sirius. The Slacker DJ feature customizes its playlist based on the user's input of a few bands they already like, ala Pandora. Thus, whereas a fan of Modest Mouse might have a handful of channels on XM/Sirius where they could hope to sporadically hear their heroes, or something similar, with Slacker they could create an entire channel based on their favorite band, and those bands that like minded fans also dig. Slacker's web service appears to easily beat either XM or Sirius' offerings in terms of variety and customizable options (and it's free!), so, if Slacker succeeds in what it's trying to do, one would expect the same pattern to emerge in its automotive incarnation.
That's not to say that Slacker, by itself, can completely replace everything XM/Sirius can do. Slacker, needing time to gather a library of music that conforms to its user's preferences, will be less amenable to spontaneity. A listener who bumps their head and develops a taste for, say, Canadian Adult Alternative would be better off with XM/Sirius (though if they're willing to wait a few hours for Slacker to adjust to their preferences, they can have a playlist specifically tailored to their new found love of Celine Dion.)
Another difference is that Slacker, since it is not live, will not support live news or talk radio. However, such programming is widely available in podcast form, which the Slacker hardware is perfectly capable of playing, and many listeners prefer to listen to their news or talk in that manner – at a time of their choosing, with pause, fast forward, and rewind – anyway. The one area where Slacker is truly hamstrung by its inability to do real-time broadcasting is sports coverage – but the disadvantage is mitigated by the fact that nothing about a Slacker receiver is incompatible with having a good old AM/FM receiver right next to it.
The point that's lost on (or hidden by) the anti-merger crowd is that unless one bends over backwards to define the market as narrowly as possible, consumers have many different options for getting substantially the same package of benefits offered by XM/Sirius, even if no one source can cover all of the bases at once. The significance of Slacker, if it lives up to its promise, is that it will cover one of the few bases the anti-merger crowd can still make a case for: a huge library of digital quality music, eclectic enough to have something for everyone, that a listener can enjoy uninterrupted wherever the road takes them.