I really thought Apple was going to pull through with their iCloud offering at WWDC this year. While iCloud is certainly a solid product in its own right, I was expecting something much grander. I was expecting Apple to recreate and revamp their iTunes model and steamroll over the competition in the cloud scene, placing iTunes squarely on top of the digital music scene, the spot it has been so used to occupying in the past eight years or so. The stars were aligned in Apple’s favor, too. After Google and Amazon both released cloud music locker options to decidedly mixed critical opinion, rushing to beat Apple to market and abandoning many important features in the process, Apple was poised to knock this one out of the park. iCloud was a decent attempt, but for the cloud music industry, it was simply a base hit. Right now, there are a few different cloud music services to choose from, each having their own advantages and disadvantages, but the industry really needs a killer app to get the market truly behind the new model for music storage and streaming. Here’s how to do it.
Subscription options are the way of the future – According to an RIAA report, music subscriptions were up 29.9% from 2009-2010, from 1.2 million subscribers to 1.5. At the same time, revenues from these services were down 5.7%. As subscriptions get cheaper and more companies begin to compete internationally (*cough* Spotify *cough*), consumers have a lot of choice when it comes to these services, and some, like Microsoft’s Zune Pass, even allow you to keep DRM-free copies of some of the music you listen to. For consumers that listen to a lot of different music and who don’t want to spend a lot of money on new albums, the subscription model is a godsend. However the model certainly doesn’t sit well with everybody, especially those who want to own their music. After all, once you stop paying, the music stops playing. It’s kind of like leasing a car. You may be paying less per month to drive, but since you’re not gaining equity in the car, many feel that it’s simply a waste. Subscriptions aren’t the way of the future, but the option to subscribe certainly is.
Access = Streaming + Storage – This is something Apple has failed to do (unless you’re paying for iTunes Match, which has its own limitations). The nice thing about Amazon and Google is that they give you the option to either stream the music from their servers or download it to your device for your network independent listening pleasure. The entire point of having a music locker is that you’re not forced to actually have the music you want to listen to on your device. If I’m on the road on a spotty 3G connection, I don’t want to have to wait for a large download to complete before listening to my music. It almost defeats the purpose. There also should be streaming quality options. If I’m on a decent connection, I should be able to stream my tracks at native quality. Bandwidth should be the only limitation. I don’t want to be forced into listening to anything less than 128kbps if I have the bandwidth to handle it.
Music Matching – Assuming you can get the record labels on board, skipping the upload phase of a typical user’s transition to a cloud service is an awesome service to include in any competent cloud music platform. The average upload speed for US broadband customers, according to market research firm RVA, is 2.7 Mbps. Considering the ever increasing size of digital music collections, uploading can get tedious. This also gives the cloud service more breathing room since the user’s tracks do not need to be stored in the cloud: They are simply fingerprinted and a streaming version can be delivered on demand.
Mobile Access – Google is doing this very well right now. The new and improved Android Music app now includes both local and cloud content seamlessly, and you can filter between the two. It automatically stores music you listen to temporarily, and you can choose to download songs, albums, or playlists to the device indefinitely. It’s a flexible system, and it serves as a great model for how mobile cloud music should be done. The app certainly needs some polish, but the general idea is off to a great start.
Library Organization – Not all of us have scrupulously tagged and applied correctly sized and titled album art to our vast digital libraries. There are many online databases that carry and distribute this information for free, and a cloud music platform should have access to this and at least make a valiant attempt at properly tagging uploaded tracks. It’s not something that’s vital to the success of any given platform, but it’s a pleasing perk that consumers will appreciate. This is something that Microsoft’s Zune desktop software and Zune Pass have done remarkably well. Identifying untagged media is simple, powerful and flexible, and they have a beautiful software package to display all that information to boot.
The Price is Right – The service has to start out free. The truth is that most people don’t need a cloud locker. It’s a great option for storage and organization, and streaming options save valuable space on your devices, but it’s definitely not something consumers can’t live without. The current slew of services have done a good job of this, offering the first few GB for free and charging more for extra services and storage options. At this point, entering the competition with an initially paid model is somewhat suicidal.
Ever since Google announced Google Music at last year’s Google I/O, I patiently awaited the first big company that would deliver on all these fronts. Every time a service has been launched since then, it’s been with a combination of some of these features but never all of them. Apple, with their intimate music label relationships, relationships that neither Google nor Amazon were able to materialize before launching their own respective launches, was an advantage that gave them the upper hand in my mind. If Apple started a subscription option in iTunes, along with the plans they already had for iCloud, and priced it at least close to the competition, they could have bulldozed the market. That didn’t happen, and we’re still left without our killer app.
Nevertheless, the game isn’t over by a long shot. Facebook has been conspicuously absent from the fray, and considering their own presence in the infrastructure and content hosting industry, it's only logical that they make a solid attempt at entry. They do have plans to partner with Spotify to offer the popular subscription service on their social network platform, and adding cloud music storage to that equation could be golden for them. However, that hasn’t been announced in any way, and is purely wishful speculation. I do think it’s possible that a killer app combining all the above qualities is possible, and even probable. I patiently await its arrival.