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Is Pandora Media's Competitive Advantage Eroding?

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For the longest time, Pandora  (NYSE: P  ) was the only player in the still evolving music streaming market. Offering a custom playlist based on your favorite music, it was the newest development in mobile music.

Then, in the summer of 2013, tech titan Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) announced the new iTunes Radio, a competing service that was billed as the Pandora killer. Investors took note, and rewarding Apple stock while (temporarily) punishing Pandora, thinking that Apple's clout with music producers and prowess with online music, would gobble up its lesser competition.

Yet Pandora survived that initial downturn, and responded by climbing to an all-time high of $40 per share this March. However, after an announcement for a fee increase for paid subscribers, and rumors of an iTunes Radio app for the Android, (Pandora's main market), the stock tumbled 25% in a month before the trend was reversed last week.

So does this mean midnight is on the horizon for Pandora? In short, is the the company's competitive advantage withering away? Let's see.

Will "first mover" help Pandora?
One of Pandora's enduring strengths was its first-mover advantage in the business. Before Spotify, it was the main company for free customized music streaming. By having success monetizing the app with advertising, the company was able to generate serious revenue on the back of the huge Android customer base. I theorized last summer that this gave Pandora its own ecosystem that wouldn't bolt for Apple if there wasn't enough of a difference between the two programs, and would preserve Pandora's profitability and market share.

However, Apple is no other competitor. It carries a larger ecosystem where people go to Apple for just about every technological need. Adding iTunes Radio means it taps into that loyal ecosystem directly, and has a larger music cache than Pandora has, making for more customizable listening.

As for the first-mover problem, iTunes Radio logged 11 million unique visitors in the first five days of availability, five times more than Rhapsody had during the same time frame when it launched in 2001. Even though Apple touted this in September 2013 as a shot across Pandora's bow, sending their Apple-sensitive share price down, it was nevertheless an apples-to-oranges comparison (12 years is an eternity in technology).

Android market safe -- for now
Pandora though is still safe in the Android sphere, which is a larger potential customer base. If the rumors of an Android move are true for iTunes Radio, then you have a right to be concerned. In the meantime, Pandora may be a good buy. It is trending below its 10 and 50-day SMA, and the slide has been halted . Given its recent history of bouncing back after Apple caused bad news, there is a chance for a decent profit.

But caution should be urged. An Android move won't be just a warning shot. It will be a shot right at Pandora's sails, with dominance of the seas of music streaming gleaming ever brighter in Tim Cook's eye.

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John McKenna

I am a senior at Fordham University in Bronx, NY about to finish my Bachelor's Degree in Economics.

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