Music Diary Notes: Quick Look at iTunes Match & iCloud In Context

At the WWDC Keynote, Apple talked quite a bit about Mac OS X Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud. Of the three, iCloud was the least known and newest reveal. Here is a bit about iCloud:

iCloud is so much more than a hard drive in the sky. It’s the effortless way to access just about everything on all your devices. iCloud stores your content so it’s always accessible from your iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, Mac, or PC.* It gives you instant access to your music, apps, latest photos, and more. And it keeps your email, contacts, and calendars up to date across all your devices. No syncing required. No management required. In fact, no anything required. iCloud does it all for you.

While iCloud is quite cool, the ‘one more thing’ today was iTunes Match. But they go hand in hand in terms of music. So let’s look at some of the features of iCloud and iTunes Match:

  • WiFi Sync: not strictly part of iCloud, but allows you to propogate changes in playlists, tack info, ratings, and so on to all of your devices.
  • iTunes in the Cloud: all of your iTunes purchased music (and books and apps) is available to up to 10 devices on your account.
  • iTunes Match: taking iTunes in the Cloud to the next level, for a $25 annual fee iTunes Match scans your local PC/Mac iTunes library and any songs that are part of the Apple iTunes Library are added to your iCloud library as if you bought them. Non-matching songs can be manually uploaded.

One of the great promised features of iTunes Match is that all of the music stored in your iTunes cloud – whether purchased or matched – would be stored as 256kbps AAC files, regardless of original quality. For those who – like me – still have many GB of music ripped from CDs at 128 or 160kbps when space was more precious, that is a great boon. For those who listen to 320kbps or lossless audio …sorry.

There are still plenty of questions about everything that Apple announced, but for those who like me built their iTunes library on CDs and have largely moved from iTunes to Amazon based on price, one critical question is – what happens to my ‘iCloud Library’ if I decide not to renew my iTunes Match subscription? Does everything just blow away in the breeze?

One thing that I want to be certain is extremely clear – iCloud Music is NOT a streaming solution. Many folks hoped that we would see iTunes in the Cloud encompass iTunes Match, but go further and offer cloud-based streaming to iOS and web clients (and possibly even Android).

Instead, you might have 25,000 songs in your iCloud, if you want to grab your copy of Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder you will have to access it from iCloud and download to your iOS device. I assume that you will then be able to delete again, but right now that isn’t clear.

Also, rather than clarify the ‘music in the cloud’ situation, Apple’s iCloud and iTunes Match make the situation even more confusing, if that was possible. Here is a quick run-down of several popular solutions in the ‘music in the cloud’ space.

  • Amazon Cloud Music – Music you buy is added to your cloud, and you get 5GB of free storage. Right now they are essentially giving away the 20GB upgrade for a year with the purchase of any MP3 album, including if you helped them amass a huge loss with the Lady Gaga promotion. Music is stored on the cloud and streamed to web or Android client. Comments: generally decent implementation, music sound quality is awful.
  • Google Music Beta – You install a client and it runs your computer to the ground. Seriously … you get storage up to 20,000 songs that you upload, can listen from web browser or Android client. Once your songs get uploaded. Comments: the client is awful, slowing down the computer and hogging bandwidth. Playback is acceptable.
  • mSpot Music – You get 5GB for free (can upgrade to 40GB), and an uploader similar to Google … but better. You can play back on web, iOS or Android clients. Android client adds ‘mSpot Radio’, a Slacker-like internet radio service that works with your listening choices and library to recommend stations. Comment: smart-caching makes playback a dream. Better than Amazon or Google at this point.
  • Rdio/MOG – On-demand music subscription service that lets you listen to anything in their (~10 million song) library, and do some limited downloading to listen offline. Comments: great solution for most folks in terms of content, but lack of ownership is problematic.
  • Spotify – Similar to Rdio and MOG, but has better integration of your local files and cloud and on-demand music both on PC client and on iOS/Android.
  • Slacker – No cloud, mainly an internet radio service, but recently gained an on-demand service that might not offer the depth or breadth of Rdio and other on-demand focused services, but is a nice complement to the excellent streaming radio service.
  • Pandora – No cloud, just an internet radio service.
  • eMusic – ‘download to own’ subscription service, no cloud. Recently lost ability to re-download without re-purchase.

For context, ‘on demand’ means that I can type in ‘Nefertiti’ and get several choices of songs and listen immediately. I can play the entire Miles Davis album of that title, for example. On demand services are subscription-based, and there is no ownership of music. In cases where you can download, the music is played through the client and is useless outside of the client.

If you scan the list you will see several services meeting a variety of needs, but nothing that really reaches across all possible musical desires. That was the hope for iCloud Music – that we would have iTunes on the Cloud that would expand to deal with our existing music, but that listening clients would allow for streaming content alongside playback of locally stored material.

There was the hope that we would also have the ability to search music on a web-based iTunes interface and if we were iCloud Music subscribers we could stream music on-demand.

Ultimately we still don’t know exactly what the implementation of all of these things will look like when it launches. There is still plenty of time to figure out all of this stuff, as the iTunes Match service will arrive this fall along with iOS 5 for $24.99.

I know I will immediately sign up … what about you?

Categories: Editorials, Music Diary

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for clarifying iCloud and iTunes match, as I was awfully confused after reading about it yesterday. I will definitely not be enrolling in the matching service right away, but I will be enrolled (as a mobileme user — which I’m now rethinking) automatically into iCloud. This whole thing makes me nervous in terms of Apple’s propensity to close everything down. I’m a believer in working across platforms and OSs, etc, and this just makes me worry about how all of it will make life harder for me as an Android user, or non-Apple-MP3-player (Cowon!) user.

    You’re right that there are a lot of questions, and for me it’s all going to be about how locked down iCloud is. From what I see, it could be pretty ironclad.