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Spotify apps are a big deal, and a real challenge to iTunes

Spotify's new apps platform has huge potential for the integration of social and gaming services with music, reckons Stuart Dredge.

Daniel Ek could do a job for Apple. In terms of keynote presentational skills, I mean -- although the thought of Spotify's CEO working in Cupertino is an intriguing one.

Watching Ek's polished performance at this week's Spotify Apps launch, it was easy to forget that this was the company's first set-piece press event of this nature. Even Steve Jobs would have struggled to find fault, although he may have chucked a few coffee cups at his monitor at the sound of Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner nicking an Apple soundbite to describe Spotify as a service that "just works".

What about the actual announcement though? Spotify Apps is a platform for developers and media companies to make HTML5 apps that work within Spotify's desktop application, providing new features from music recommendations and personalised playlists through to gig tickets and lyrics.

It's a big deal. Not least because it means developers can leap in to correct some of Spotify's well-known weak points. The streaming music service has always been slick and blazing fast, but it's been much better for finding music you know already than music you haven't heard yet, but might like.

Teaming up with Facebook has helped, while external sites such as Sharemyplaylists and Spotimy (both excellent) have stepped into the gap too. Putting apps inside Spotify itself is a sensible and necessary step forward though.

I was playing with some of the apps this morning on the preview version. We Are Hunted's app is simple but fantastic: providing an instant playlist of 100 tracks currently trending online, while also letting you drill down by genre.

Last.fm's app has potential, although it's better if you've remembered to keep scrobbling your music in recent years. The Songkick app looks set to be as good at making you spend lots of money on gig tickets as its iPhone app, too. The apps from the Guardian and Rolling Stone bring a more editorial focus too, albeit one that may work better when it's 'Best Of' lists and staff picks than just the latest reviews.

This feels like the start of something good, though. Spotify says it's going to be approving app ideas rather than letting developers dive onto its platform willy-nilly. That should ensure there's a good killer-to-filler ratio for apps, but hopefully it doesn't mean Spotify will only focus on well-known sites and brands, to the detriment of lone developers in a bedroom with big ideas for the future of music discovery.

It's noticeable that all these apps will be sitting within Spotify for now, rather than outside it. That means no Spotify Apps in, ahem, Spotify's apps for mobile phones. It also means sites like the Guardian, We Are Hunted and the rest won't be putting their Spotify Apps on their own sites for now.

This is Spotify's equivalent of Facebook's first-generation applications platform, rather than its equivalent of Facebook Connect, in other words. "We believe that's a more beautiful and seamless experience, and it gets us closer to the song as well," Ek said -- although it's quite possible that there might be record label licensing reasons why Spotify isn't quite ready to put its streaming music on other sites just yet, too.

If Spotify's change from being a music service to being a music platform is to reach its full potential, that'll be solved, and hopefully sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, there is bags of potential, including for some quirkier apps than the initial wave of recommendation and discovery apps that launched this week. Think about social games: what kind of nifty HTML5 game could be created to live within Spotify? Or how about Turntable.fm-style avatar chat-rooms for people to play music to their friends?

Talking of friends, Spotify announced another new thing on Wednesday, which, although not as high-profile as the new apps, is a big step forward in its own right. If you've downloaded the new preview client, you'll see that the Friends bar on the right-hand side has changed.

Its lower half is now a Facebook Ticker-style news feed of what your friends have been doing on Spotify, rather than simply showing their names and photos. But the important bit is above: the ability to choose your 'favourite friends' -- the ones whose musical tastes are actually similar to yours.

It makes Spotify one of the first digital music services to look beyond the first generation of social features -- see what all your friends are doing -- to let you drill down to the people whose real-time activity will actually be useful to you.

But it's the evolution of Spotify Apps that's going to be fascinating to follow, especially in terms of what it means for the company's rivalry with Apple's iTunes service. There hasn't been any open warfare between the two companies -- Apple approved Spotify's iPhone app, after all.

But despite the launch of download stores by Amazon and Google in recent times, it's Spotify that's emerging as the key challenger to iTunes' digital music dominance: it's already the second biggest source of revenues behind Apple's store for record labels in Europe (or at least in the European countries where it's available).

Traditionally, the iTunes/Spotify rivalry has been about downloads versus streams: ownership versus access. But now you can think of it in another way: closed versus open. Which is an interesting parallel to the battle between iOS and Android.

Things are a bit more blurry than that: iTunes is open in the sense that iOS developers can build its song samples into their apps, while Spotify's apps platform has restrictions on just how open it can be.

But the battle is good news for music fans, if it spurs both companies (and other digital music rivals) to make their services more innovative, more powerful and more usable.