You can hear Laura Sydell, NPR's Digital Culture Reporter, talk to All Things Considered's Melissa Block about the announcement by clicking on the audio link above.
On Monday afternoon, Apple announced the introduction of iCloud, a music service that will allow users to listen to their music from almost any Internet-connected device. (Update at 4:30 p.m.: Initially we called Apple's service a streaming one. We're not sure exactly how iTunes Match will work, and we're getting in touch with Apple. We'll update again as soon as we hear back.)
Update at 5:58 p.m.: An Apple spokesperson says that iCloud and iTunes Match are not streaming services. Rather, they combine to offer what's essentially access to songs via a cloud-based locker not unlike Amazon's Cloud Drive. The major difference with Apple's service (apart from the price) is that you won't have to upload songs from your computer's hard drive if they're already available in the iTunes store. What does this mean if you've got a device — say a 32GB iPhone — with not enough storage space to accommodate the amount of music on your hard drive at home — let's say, just for argument's sake, 101.68GB? Language on Apple's website says iTunes Match offers "all the benefits of iTunes in the Cloud." The same limitations apply as well: because you won't be streaming the songs from iCloud, you'll have to manually manage the songs on your iPod or iPhone — that means downloading them individually — the same way you do now.
The service, which was introduced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, will be available starting in the fall for users of Apple products who also upgrade to the company's latest operating system. Though iCloud itself will be free, to fully take advantage of the service, users will need to pay $24.99 per year for a service called iTunes Match that will scan their iTunes library and make their songs available to be streamed on any Apple device, as long as those songs happen to among the 18 million available from Apples iTunes store. Songs that aren't included in the store will have to be uploaded from users' hard drives.
A note on Apple's web page indicates that 5GB of storage will be offered to iCloud users for free. The service replaces Apple's previously available MobileMe service, which allowed users to store data and access email, calendar and contacts via a cloud. Subscribers to iCloud will have their E-books, photos and documents all backed up wirelessly and automatically. Purchased music, apps and books will not count toward the allotted storage.
It was a major announcement for the company. Consumers and industry watchers have been waiting for Apple to introduce a cloud-based service for streaming music for months, which put the company in an unusual position. Unlike the introduction of the iPod, which launched into a wide-open marketplace; or iTunes, the first major digital music store, Apple is ever so slightly behind the curve when it comes to cloud-based streaming systems. Amazon's cloud drive, which allows users to store their own media, including movies and music, was introduced in March. Google announced a similar service — Music Beta — last month.
As Laura Sydell explained on NPR this weekend, the big difference between iCloud and those two services is that Apple's cloud-based service won't just be what's known as a "locker." In those services, users upload their own files to off-site storage that can be accessed from multiple devices, where iCloud will scan a user's library and match her songs with identical versions stored on Apple's servers. (Identical being a somewhat flimsy word here – the version of the song will be the same, but not necessarily the quality. All of the songs stored on Apple's servers will be encoded at 256Kbps AAC files.)
The benefit of the matching for users, as Apple sees it, is that iCloud won't require them to upload songs to a locker, a process that could take hours or days depending on the number of songs uploaded. For record labels and musicians, there's another upside: because Apple will be able to track how many times each song in iTunes is streamed on a user's device, musicians and songwriters could be paid royalties.
That last part probably accounts for the lag between other cloud-based services and iCloud. Apple negotiated contracts with the four major record labels before introducing their service; a portion of the money subscribers pay to Apple will be funneled to labels, musicians and publishers based on how frequently their songs are streamed.
Questions remain after the presentation. Jobs didn't talk about the deals Apple hammered out with the record labels, so we have no idea how much labels and musicians will be paid for streaming royalties, if they'll get anything at all.
But maybe most important for all who have invested, from labels to consumers to the company itself: will Apple's dominance – iTunes is the largest music retailer in the world — be enough to compensate for the head start Amazon and Google have with their already operational systems?
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
NPR's Laura Sydell was at today's conference and she joins us now. Laura, it's called iCloud. Tell us what it does.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LAURA SYDELL: So no longer will you have to just download all your music onto every single device. Instead, you'll just be able to sign in and your music will be there. And in this case, there were other things too, as well as photos and documents. So it was a whole kind of iCloud service that they were talking about here.
BLOCK: Yeah, Apple is following on the heels of Amazon and Google. Both of those companies have announced their own Cloud-based music service over the past several months. How is iCloud any different?
SYDELL: What Apple did, Apple is doing this thing where iTunes will essentially scan your library and it will look at what's songs you've, and then it will find those same songs in its library. So it just knows you've got and that you bought them or you own them, and it will give you access to those particular songs. And that means it's going to happen instantaneously. You won't have to wait until every song uploads.
BLOCK: What about a cost to the consumer, Laura?
SYDELL: So, say, if it was something that wasn't in their library, that would still be problematic. But they have a very big library, so were talking about a lot of songs. So for 24.99, I think it's about 20,000 songs. And as one analyst I talked to afterward said, for most people 20,000 songs is a lot of songs to be able to access from any device.
BLOCK: Yeah, you're paying to access songs you already own though it's...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SYDELL: Yes, that is true. You are paying for a service. That is absolutely true. Though I have to say, you know, if you compare it to, say, Amazon's Cloud service, it actually ends up being cheaper. It's 24.99 a year. And to me, it seems like a pretty good deal for a service that essentially lets you get all your music wherever you are. But I don't know. That's me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: Laura, briefly. Did - Apple is a little bit behind the curve here. Why did it tale them so long to unveil this Cloud-based music service?
SYDELL: Well, you know, there are a lot of rights involved here. And the reason that Amazon and Google did it the way they did it is because they didn't want to step on anybody's rights. The reason Apple's work so quickly is because they've got all four major record labels involved. They've got publishers involved and everybody is getting a cut on this. And so that's why it took them longer.
BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Laura Sydell, thanks so much.
SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.