Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Google, Amazon Dodge a Bullet: Apple’s iCloud Music Is a Meh. (Luckily, There’s Much, Much More.)

The iCloud service Steve Jobs introduced today covers much more than music: Apple’s new Web-based offering will sync users’ mail, calendar and contacts, as well as apps they’ve bought through iTunes.

The same goes for books, among other apps. And there’s a Google Apps-like feature for Apple’s suite of productivity software (word processing, charts, etc). Oh, and photos, too. And it’s all free. It’s a lot to process, and we’ll likely come back to it several times in the next couple days.*

But the big hype leading up to today’s developer conference was the music service that Apple has been working on for the last year. And that service isn’t going to blow anyone away. At least not if they’ve paid attention to the services Google and Amazon are already offering.

Google and Amazon launched their locker services without the approval of the music industry, and Apple, which has been negotiating with the labels for the last couple months, was supposed to be able to offer a much better version because it was paying the labels for the privilege. On paper, though, they’re going to be quite similar.

Like Amazon and Google, iCloud will let you listen to music you already own on just about any device you want, via Apple’s giant server farms. Apple will also let you download any music you bought from its iTunes store to multiple devices as well–a feature that neither of its competitors offers (Google doesn’t sell digital music, period).

But as Steve Jobs knows very well, only a very, very small portion of any iTunes users’ music collection came from the iTunes store–just 3 percent, he estimated in 2007. So while syncing purchases is a nice incentive for anyone thinking about buying a song from iTunes, it won’t mean much to most people.

The big difference between Apple’s service and its two rivals is that Apple will use a “scan and match” system to sync what’s on your hard drive to the cloud, so you won’t have to actually upload the bulk of your library to its servers. Instead, the service will simply mirror your collection with songs it already has on hand. (If it doesn’t have a particular song in your collection, it will go ahead and upload yours.)

That’s useful, because uploading a large collection of music–Apple, like Google and Amazon, won’t care where you got the music, so pirates don’t need to sweat–on a conventional broadband connection can take hours, or even days. But Apple isn’t giving it away, either: It will charge $24.99 for that option, which it is calling “iTunes Match.”

UPDATE: It’s also important to note that while Amazon and Google let users stream their cloud-based music to their devices, Apple will offer downloads for music it stores via iTunes Match. Meaning once you’ve moved it down from the cloud to your device, you don’t have to worry about having a live Web connection to listen to it again. The flip side of this is that on some devices, users may run into a storage issue, because Apple isn’t offering users the ability to stream the music. On the third hand, if all or most of your stuff is in the cloud, storage shouldn’t matter that much, anyway.

What about other features that music industry observers (like myself) had expected to see–like the ability to share music with friends, or any kind of social tie-ins? Nope. Also MIA: Any kind of improved recommendation/discovery engine. In Jobs’ world, music is still something you own, and listen to, by yourself.

At today’s keynote, Jobs tried to beat down his competitors with a comparison chart that showed that iTunes Match customers would get a much better deal than Amazon or Google could offer. But that doesn’t seem like it will hold up: Both Amazon and Google are dead set on offering a competitive music service, and both seem very capable of undercutting Apple on storage prices and setting off a price war that will bring all of this down to zero, or very close.

So is that all there is? Seems hard to imagine. And certainly Jobs will eventually extend iCloud to cover movies and TV shows, where the files are much bigger, and cloud-based storage could be really, really useful. But for now, Jobs doesn’t seem to have lengthened his lead on his music rivals. And if they’re motivated, they’ll catch up shortly.

*Worth noting that Jobs, who showed up at the beginning of Apple’s developer keynote, then left the stage for the next 90 minutes and reappeared to introduce iCloud–go for it, Kremlinologists.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald