Saturday, June 4, 2011

Apple to Unveil iCloud Service Soon

To maintain the momentum of Apple-related blog posts (which is weird since I am definitely not a fan of its products), I wanted to share some thoughts about Apple's upcoming iCloud music service. It definitely won't be revolutionary but, given Apple's clout in the music industry, the service should make a tremendous impact.

Cloud-based music streaming is not a new idea at all. Although Amazon's recent release of its Amazon Cloud Drive marks a new chapter in its prominence, these services have existed for years. For instance, the music-streaming service Pandora is essentially a cloud-based music streaming service. You can't store music on Pandora nor directly purchase the music, it allows you to listen to (ad-sponsored) music anywhere you have internet connection. Its 48 million-strong subscribers is certainly invitation for competitors to entry the market.

What makes Pandora's service unique is, as mentioned, its inability to store music, ad-placement, and indirect purchase of music. Pandora primarily serves as a "music recommendation" service that offers customized playlists -- very useful for those who want to sample new music. But Amazon's Cloud Player, on the other hand, works much more like a traditional cloud computing service. The same can be said of Google's Music Beta and (theoretically) Apple's iCloud service.

For these three aforementioned services, the subscriber is offered varying amounts of storage data on a computer cloud that allows easy access anywhere to the internet. Subscribers/users have to upload individual songs onto the cloud before being able to play it. So therein marks a vital difference between these services and Pandora -- user input is necessary before the service becomes usable (almost like the characteristic of social networks discussed previously).

But as this article from the Boston Globe describes, Apple's iCloud service may be somewhat different from Google's and Amazon's. More specifically, instead of users having to upload songs onto the cloud, Apple's iTunes services could search a user's music library and automatically link the song to what Apple already has stored in its servers. This way, Apple saves bandwidth and the user saves the hassle of having to upload music. Sounds like a win-win scenario...except this means having to strike deals with music labels. There are reports that Apple has already ponied up considerable royalties to four major music labels (Sony, Warner, EMI) for iCloud music rights.

Having used Amazon's Cloud Player, I can see how Apple's approach could be more popular with users. It took me almost an hour to upload 2 GBs of music! Furthermore, Amazon's cloud service is not very well integrated with its own music store -- which is a competitive advantage of Apple's, thanks to the ubiquitousness of its iTunes system. But we can't fault Amazon for its effort. Not only was it the first on the market (Pandora aside), it offers users 5GB of storage on its cloud drive that isn't limited to music. Amazon's approach to cloud-based streaming also made sense because it did not want the hassle nor the big royalties paid to the music labels.

All in all, cloud-based music streaming looks like it is here to stay. Advancement in data networks and in portable devices would only help their widespread usage. In the long term, I see Apple's iCloud service sharing the marketplace with Amazon's and Google's products. Amazon should be the bigger rival since it has its own music store already -- only problem is integration. Services like Pandora would become niche, targeting users who want to sample different music from what they already have.

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