June 6, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Apple’s Music iCloud Is Nice, Not Revolutionary

After months of anticipation and rumors about Apple iCloud, Steve Jobs finally unveiled the service to developers (and viewers of unofficial live streams) at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, with one major new feature for music fans: the ability to store up to 20,000 songs on Apple’s cloud and download them to any authorized device (iOS, Mac or PC) for $25 per year.

But wait — Music Beta by Google offers to store and stream the identical number of songs, for free. (Amazon Cloud Drive, on the other hand, offers 5GB for free, or about 5,000 songs, for $20 per year.) How can Apple justify charging $25 for something similar to what Google offers for free?

First, $25 isn’t much to pay, considering that it means you can download nice, clean, 256 Kbps AAC versions of even your dodgy bit-torrent-downloaded MP3s from iCloud to any iDevice or iTunes-running computer for a year. In addition to the $100 million advance that Apple reportedly paid the labels to offer this service, this $25 fee is essentially a way to pay for all the free music you’ve been stealing or grabbing for free from MP3 blogs, your friend’s computer, or wherever.

apple keynoteSecond, the fact that Google offers neither a dominant music playing mobile app, nor software like iTunes, nor a music store — and the fact that so many people already use Apple’s products for all three — means that Apple’s version of the cloud will require much less adjustment from music fans than Google’s. In many cases, they can go on using the same things they have been for music, but now, with this attractive cloud feature.

Finally, unlike Music Beta by Google, Amazon Cloud Drive, Mspot, MP3Tunes, or any of the other cloud-based music lockers we’ve seen, Apple iTunes Match mirrors your music collection onto the cloud in minutes, rather than requiring you to upload it over a period of hours, days, or as Apple claims, weeks. (This is the feature for which Apple reportedly paid $100 million — a figure so large, we theorize, because the labels see it as payback for allowing P2P files into the iCloud ecosystem.) And for those rare live recordings — and anything else for which iTunes Match can’t find a match within its 18-million-song catalog — iCloud uploads the files themselves so that they’re represented in your iCloud collection.

Until the very end of Steve Jobs’ presentation, we were ready to call it a big disappointment, music-wise — and, in a way, it is.

In addition to this cloud-based music locker, all Apple had announced was the ability to sync music you had purchased from iTunes to up to ten authorized machines (iOS devices and Macs and PCs running iTunes), as well as the ability to sync iTunes to iDevices using a Wi-Fi connection rather than a USB cable — both long overdue features and hardly worth all of this hullabaloo. Jobs then revealed his trademark “one more thing” — this ability to store up to 20,000 songs in iCloud — validating Apple’s offering for serious music fans, but only to an extent.

Apple’s music locker is a nice feature for those who like Apple’s hardware and software, but it’s not the cloud endgame: a Rhapsody- or Spotify-type music subscription service on steroids, which some thought Apple would launch. As such, it encourages the same old behaviors — downloading songs one-by-one from music stores or P2P networks instead of subscribing to the entire world of music.

In addition, there’s no way to share music with friends, create playlists in a collaborative fashion, listen with Facebook pals, mash preferences with friends, or do any of the other neat tricks that unlimited cloud-based music services can allow.

But when it comes to killing your monthly data plan with music streaming, Apple has you covered (updated; like others, we falsely assumed that Apple’s claim to let you “listen… anytime, on any device” meant that it would stream these files, because “anytime” doesn’t mean “once it downloads” and “on any device” should include those already filled with data). Unlike Amazon, Google, and most other music lockers, Apple iCloud downloads the files and stores them on your devices, rather than streaming them.

At least the music you’ve ripped from CDs, downloaded from MP3 blogs, recorded yourself, or downloaded from P2P services or sneakernet can enter your personal tuft of the Apple cloud for less than the price of two CDs per year, in minutes. It’s a nice offering, but leaves the full promise of cloud-based music up in the air.

(First image courtesy of Apple; second courtesy of Ustream/AppleKeynote)