Today marks the 5-year anniversary of the iPhone App Store and the launch of our iPhone app. Since our launch on the web in 2005, we have always been keenly aware that, in order to truly redefine radio, we would need to break Pandora free from the PC. That tipping point came on July 10, 2008, when the Pandora app debuted during the iPhone App Store launch. The result was beyond our greatest hopes and expectations: Pandora’s growth virtually doubled overnight. We watched in amazement as millions of people downloaded Pandora onto their iPhones and Pandora was transformed from an at-work, desktop experience into an anytime, anywhere, ubiquitous phenomenon.
Pandora immediately became a must-have app. Even today it continues to be one of the most-downloaded and most-used apps around.
Behind the Pandora mobile app is a team of engineers who maintain and improve the app for a variety of smartphone platforms every day. One of these engineers, Neil Mix, has been with Pandora for more than eight years and helped build our very first smartphone app. Here’s his story about its development:
Smartphones are so integrated into our lives nowadays that it’s hard to remember when apps weren’t commonplace. In 2007, feature phones and BlackBerrys were common, but the iPhone was still brand-new. Our CTO Tom Conrad wanted to inspire the engineering team to think about how Pandora could be further developed off-the-web, so he wisely gave iPhones to everyone on the dev team – we were hooked!
Devices in hand, we explored the new platform’s potential. Some of the team started working on a secret prototype Pandora app. Of course, this was before Apple had published an SDK (Software Development Kit), so some of us had to jailbreak devices and get to work using, um, “unsupported methods” (Shhh…don’t tell Apple.) The prototype made a great demo, but when Apple eventually opened its developer program, nearly every programming API had changed. We had to start over from scratch.
We resumed work in April of 2008 with a target release date of mid-July. That’s a pretty tight schedule. It was challenging to develop the app in these early days. We were all developing for a brand-new interface and platform. The early days also meant that developer tools were sometimes incomplete, Xcode was known to crash and the documentation was basic. Nevertheless, the pieces steadily came together.
I vividly remember when the Pandora iPhone app first played music. It was after midnight and I’d been struggling for hours to set pointers, rearrange buffers, and decode the audio APIs, but the app still responded with only silence, static or crashes. I made one more tiny edit and the app surprised me by filling the room with “Sweet Home Alabama.” In that moment, it was the best song I’d ever heard.
Sweet Home Alabama is an awesome song.— Neil Mix (@neilmix) May 23, 2008
As development progressed, we were on schedule for our original mid-July release date when a bombshell dropped:
Our task list suddenly had 30% more work than time to complete it so those of us working on the app kicked into high gear, working days, nights and weekends to get the app ready in time. No one asked us to do this, nor would they – that’s not how Pandora is. We volunteered, because we firmly believed we were in the middle of creating something great.
I remember this time as simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. The work was hard and the pressure of working against the clock grueling, but the app was coming together amazingly well, and the iPhone was incredibly fun to work with.
One particular bug saw the entire phone crashing randomly when playing music and otherwise doing nothing. For hours I drove around, phone plugged into my laptop in the passenger’s seat of my car, listening to music and trying to break the app.
Building a world-class internet radio app means more than just a slick user experience. It means streaming music the way an actual radio does: continuously, non-stop, 24/7. Some people doubted that it was possible to write a high-quality music streaming engine for cell networks that existed at that time, but we had no choice. My town had only EDGE connectivity back then (times have changed!) and we needed the app to play continuously as I drove around.
It was challenging, but I didn’t mind; how awesome is it when your job is to drive around listening to great music using the coolest hi-tech device yet invented? To this day I believe Pandora has the best music streaming engine in the world thanks to the slow cell networks in my town.
In the end, we fixed the bugs, polished the app and submitted it just in time to be available on the day the Apple App Store launched.
Screenshots from Pandora Radio version 1.0
We immediately saw our hard work pay off as usage of the Pandora iPhone app skyrocketed. By the end of the year, the impact of what we’d accomplished was clear:
Wow! Time names Pandora top iPhone App of 2008: http://tinyurl.com/6guomd— Neil Mix (@neilmix) December 12, 2008
Launching Pandora on the iPhone was just the beginning. Pandora has reached a level of ubiquity that allows our more than 200 million music fans to tune-in to their personalized internet radio anytime, anywhere. We created the below infographic to help take you through the amazing journey we’ve been on over the past five years since launching our app on the iPhone. Thank you for listening and as always, we’d love to hear from you.