Thursday, May 19, 2011

Streaming Music is the Next Big Thing

Time has nearly forgotten the Old Days when you'd buy recorded music on a flat, round platter and stick it in your Victrola to get your fix. These days, the kids are all about putting together N3P mix tapes, putting them on their iPods, and dancing all around. You know, unless you're one of those Vinyl-Has-A-Richer-Sound assholes.

Just as we'd gotten used to hitting up iTunes instead of the Virgin Megastore, along comes an even newer new: streaming music. I'm not talking about Pandora, though it and other Internet radio stations certainly should have a place in any music-listener's diet - I'm talking about on-demand audio streaming, the kind that replaces the storage capacity of your iPod with storage capacity on someone's server somewhere.

The theory is that online music stores will now keep track of the songs you've purchased online and allow you to listen to any of it, anywhere, from any device. This gadget-agnostic idea is another blow for fans of media that is in some way tangible, but it makes a lot of sense for users of Internet-enabled devices where extra storage capacity comes at a premium.

There are three major players in this field at present (well, more or less, keeping in mind that it's still early days): Google with their Music Beta, Amazon with their Cloud Drive and Cloud Player, and Apple, with vague rumors of a product that hasn't actually been announced yet but is probably real and probably called iCloud.

Music Beta by Google

Google's new music streaming service, introduced at Google I/O last week and currently in an invitation-only beta, will let you upload your entire music library from your computer to their servers. This can take quite a bit of time, depending on how much music you have and how fast your connection is, but once it's up there you can play it from just about any web browser or Android device. There's no dedicated iOS app, though it's said to work well enough with mobile Safari.

Google also offers the ability to play files offline - you can specify playlists to download directly to your Android device, which will also cache recently played files for use offline. The in-browser music player, sort of a browser-based iTunes-like app, also features the Genius-like ability to throw together a playlist based on a song or genre of your choice.

A major weak point is Google's lack of a music store - both Amazon's and Apple's services have established MP3 stores with which to integrate, and this allows them to sell you music and make it available from the cloud automatically. With Google Music, you can upload any file you've got on your computer, but you'll have to get it on your computer some other way.

The service itself is free at the moment (as well it should be, since it's beta software), but I'm not sure if even Google can afford to give enough space for all of everyone's music for free. They can if anyone can, but I'd brace myself for some sort of monetary barrier once the Music service becomes more generally available.

Amazon Cloud Drive/Cloud Player

Amazon's music streaming service was the first to become available, at least in part because Amazon just launched it and figured they'd get record company approval later. For the "record," their gamble seems to be paying off - it got them a ton of press and they're too big for the RIAA to bully. It may or may not come back to haunt them later, but so far so good.

The Cloud Drive isn't just music storage, but it's also online file backup a la Dropbox - also an upload service
 - Music storage combined with online file backup - you can also store non-music files up there a la Dropbox. The increased flexibility does come at a price - your first 5GB are free, but anything beyond that will require a yearly payment based on the amount of storage you need. Amazon is currently giving away a year's worth of the 20GB capacity with the purchase of any MP3 album, which is a nice perk if you're into it.

The other perk is the ability to put music directly onto the Cloud Drive once purchased, instead of having to download it and then upload it (uploading is also an option, for those with established music libraries). Songs placed on your Cloud Drive in this fashion also don't count against your storage capacity, which further incentivizes buying from Amazon rather than elsewhere.

The player itself is a no-frills but perfectly functional affair which really doesn't merit much discussion. It lists your music. You play it. It does what it needs to do.

Apple's iCloud

And so we come to the most murky of the three. As is its wont, Apple ain't talking, and so we're left to sift through the giddy fanboyism of the Apple rumor press like so many grizzled prospectors panning for gold.

These rumors have been building for awhile - Apple enthusiasts talk about the company's North Carolina server farm as though it's a holy site, and the company bought the iCloud name from someone else late last month. It's safe to say that iCloud will be designed specifically to work with iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad, but anything more than that is conjecture - will there be a browser-based player? Will future iterations of the iPods Nano and Shuffle be able to access these files? What will it cost? We just don't know yet.

Rumors also suggest that iCloud will eschew Google and Amazon's time-intensive uploading process in favor of what's being called "scan and match," which would quickly poll your music library and use that data to give you access to songs already on Apple's servers. This leaves the distinct possibility that music unavailable to iTunes (or simply unavailable to stream - the rights to stream music are apparently so vastly different from the rights to download music that everyone has to get the record companies' blessings all over again) wouldn't be available for streaming, but that's something we won't know for sure until the service goes live.

We're also not sure exactly when this service is going to come online, though it's fairly certain to happen before the end of the summer. There are two possibilities here: the rumor mill is currently in a tizzy about something scheduled to happen today, May 19th, to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the first Apple Store's opening - unfortunately, since I'm writing this in the past, I don't know what this is yet. The other possibility is that the service will debut alongside OS X 10.7 and iOS 5, both due in the summer or early autumn.

Apple's sizable lead in market and mind share compared to other MP3 stores means that Apple has time on its side and the company is known for its perfectionist streak, so expect iCloud when it's ready and not before.


Gun to my head, I'd say that Apple is likely to ride its current market share and dedicated early adopter pool to pull ahead out of the gate, with Amazon carving out a smaller but stalwart niche based on its MP3 store audience and its early lead - without its own operating systems or browsers to back, Amazon's is also the service that will likely play the most nicely across different browsers, devices, and platforms. Google has the potential to pull ahead of Apple in the long run, but without a music store the Music Beta lacks the complete end-to-end experience you can get from the others.

As we've said, though, this is still a nascent market, and it's an impossible game to call before more time has passed. Still, the question mainly concerns who will corner this new market - that it will catch on and take off seems to be the next logical step in both the digital music and the cloud computing movements.