June 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Opinion: Apple iCloud Won’t Stream Music Because of AT&T and Verizon

You can’t use Apple iCloud yet. When you can, which should be this fall, you’ll notice something really peculiar: Unlike other music lockers, iCloud can’t stream music to you over the internet or a cellular connection. Instead, it downloads the files to your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, or iTunes-enabled computer, where you can play them from local memory.

This was such a surprising decision by Apple that, in the heat of the moment, some journalists initially reported that iCloud would in fact stream music. We weren’t the only publication to fall prey to this (and we posted a correction nearly immediately).

Even today, a Google search for “iCloud streaming” returns over one million results — and yet there will be no such thing. So, why won’t Apple stream music from iCloud, when every other music locker, past and present, does?

A colleague suggested that perhaps the major record labels, which control the rights to much of the world’s popular music, forced Apple to make iCloud download-only — possibly as part of the same negotiations that allowed Apple to mirror users’ music collections to the cloud. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that Apple is not paying for a true cloud service that allows users access to millions of tracks for a monthly fee.

I have another theory. Apple, which owns the biggest record store in the world, and whose iPhone rose to power partially on the strength of the iPod, is obviously a big music player. In addition, people who buy iPhones tend to use more bandwidth than users of other phones do, which is why AT&T no longer offers an unlimited data plan, and also why Verizon is ending their equivalent.

IPhone users are already huge bandwidth hogs, and no small amount of them use their devices to listen to music. Can you imagine what would happen to AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks if any significant percentage of them started streaming music to their phones on a daily basis, if Apple encouraged that as the default music behavior? I can.

First, people would hit their bandwidth limits faster, degrading the perceived value of their expensive wireless plans.

Second, both networks would suffer significant slowdowns from all that music streaming, because unlike downloads, which can happen at any pace, and which only need to happen once in order for the user to listen to it as many times as they want, music streaming has to happen in near-real-time, and must happen every time the user presses the Play button.

Third, AT&T and Verizon would be forced to spend even more money than they already do on new cellular towers and increasing the overall throughputs of their networks — already an expensive proposition in a country of this size.

Quite obviously, cellular service providers are not like ISPs, although they both deliver data to devices. HP, which made the computer I’m writing on this morning, doesn’t have to ink a deal with my ISP before I can upload this article, the way Apple has to with AT&T or Verizon in order for me to post it from an iPhone. (Okay, I could use WiFi, but you get my point.)

As such, Apple must keep its partners’ businesses in mind when rolling out new features — and indeed, Apple itself has a big incentive to help those networks. Without a decent data connection, the iPhone turns into an iPod Touch.

So this fall, when you’re wondering why the music stored in your iCloud account won’t just play, the way your Amazon- or Google-stored music does, remember: It’s all about the relationship between Apple (the hardware company) and your cellphone service provider.