When Amazon (and then Google) rolled out their cloud music services earlier this year, something just wasn’t right. Neither streaming service seemed poised to take off.
The main problem? Users who wanted to stream their giant music collections first have to upload them to the cloud. For some users, that meant weeks of clogging their upload bandwidth before being able to stream their entire collections.
Forget about the fact that Google’s product, Google Music, is still in beta, and requires an invite. Or that Amazon’s service costs $1/GB per year once you exceed their free 5GBs.
Apple’s offering, the newly announced iTunes Match service, addresses these issues. For a flat $24.99/year, users have cloud access to their entire music collections, regardless of size. To get around the inconvenience of uploading large collections, Apple paid over $100M to the labels for the “Match” part of iTunes Match. It scans your iTunes library and provides access to a 256kbps AAC file on Apple’s servers, regardless of the quality of the original file. Match only works with songs that iTunes sells, so the bootlegs, rarities and otherwise obscure tracks will still require uploading.
The rub? It’s not yet available, so by announcing it, they have effectively given Amazon and Google a chance to improve their services in time for Apple’s launch.
But the real disappointment with iTunes Match goes deeper than the announcement of a still-unavailable product. Unlike Google and Amazon’s services, it doesn’t actually stream any music; each track must be downloaded to your device before playing. And it isn’t what many see as the future of purchased music; an all-you-can-eat subscription service that lets you stream all of iTunes’ tracks. Execs at Spotify can breathe a little easier, at least for now.
So who is iTunes Match for? Namely, us. We’ve been uploading our 120GB collection to Google Music for the past week and we’re only 25 percent done. Amazon’s paltry 5GB of free storage seemed to serve little purpose outside of holding one 500-song playlist. Neither option has an iPhone app, requiring us to pinch and zoom the full Web interface on a 3-inch Safari window. Plus, most of our music has been acquired outside of online music retailers, so it is nice to think about our vast collection of dubiously sourced music legitimized for a mere $25/year. The iTunes/iPod integration is also welcome, as we have multiple Macs, iPhones and iPods.
But as much as it pains us, most people who listen to digital music are not nerdy archivists whose music collections don’t fit on an iPhone, iPod or other portable device. And despite the iPhone’s ubiquitous status, Android devices are proliferating at an alarming rate. iTunes Match isn’t going to be enough to get loyal Android users to switch (and don’t expect a Google Music iPhone app any time soon), at least in its current form. Users averse to Apple’s music store can still patronize Amazon for their online music purchases.
Ultimately, iTunes Match is a nice feature with a low enough point of entry to entertain curious consumers and satisfy a small group of hardcore users who have been looking for ways to free their growing collections from the prison of their computers. It was made possible by Apple’s relationships with the labels, and offers something none of its competitors do. It’s a testament to Apple’s reputation for innovation that the announcement seems tame and disappointing.
But don’t expect these services to remain stagnant (and it’s always possible that Spotify is able to strike a deal in the US). As consumers dictate to Apple, Amazon and Google what they want and what they’ll pay for, the services will mutate. The cloud music war is about to begin.
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