Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Apple’s Cloud Still Isn’t Streaming

When is a stream not a stream? When it’s a download.

While a video making the rounds today makes it seem as if Apple’s upcoming iTunes Match service will stream music from Apple’s servers to a user’s device, that’s not the case. An Apple spokesperson confirms that any music you want to access from your cloud-based “locker” will still need to be stored on your iPad, or iPhone, or whatever device you’re using to listen to the song.

This applies both to music you’ve purchased from Apple’s iTunes store, and, when Apple’s iTunes Match service starts up this fall, with music you’ve acquired some other way and then stored on Apple’s servers.

So what about that clip from Insanely Great Mac, which makes it look as if users will have the option to download or stream songs? Apple says that what looks like a “stream” is really a simultaneous listen and download — users can hear the song while their machine ingests it.

Apple won’t go into further detail about how the service will works — it was deliberately vague about it when it showed off the service at its developer conference last June, too — so we’ll have to make some educated guesses here. My best hunch: If you don’t “download” a music file to your library, it will sit in a more temporary cache, on a different part of your machine. Depending on the size of your machine’s cache — it will presumably differ from, say, an iPhone to a MacBook — that file may occasionally be cleared out.

Why does any of this matter? If you’ve read this far, you probably already know. One of the chief selling points of a “cloud” service is that you can access a giant collection of files without filling up your hard drive. But Apple’s system, as it’s currently constructed, still requires users to keep stuff on their machine in order to play with it.

And why is Apple doing that? My gut instinct was that this is about legal and licensing issues with the big music labels and publishers — because that’s almost always the answer when it comes to digital music.

But that’s not the case here, says an executive at a major music label, who tells me that Apple has already acquired streaming rights. Instead, says music executive X, this is a philosophical/design issue on Apple’s part.

Part of it is that Apple doesn’t trust the current telecom ecosystem to handle on-demand streaming of library files every time someone wants to use them — look how much trouble AT&T has had with the iPhone to date. But the other part is that Apple wants its users to think of entertainment as something they consume on Apple devices — as opposed to the Google and Amazon approach, which is supposed to let consumers grab anything they want on any device, using a browser.

“Apple’s platform is all about these files on their devices, that have incredibly great playback experience for the consumer,” says my anonymous exec. “The other cloud version, the Google version, of playback on any device on the cloud — they’re not interested in that. Apple is using the cloud to fix and advance their ecosystem.”

UPDATE: I’ve gotten a lot of reader response on this one, so I’ll take one more stab at it. One way to think about this system might be “streaming plus”. That is – you get the instant access to your music via the cloud, with the ability to play it back on demand as well. The wild card here is the way Apple treats the cache (How big is it? How often does it get cleared? Etc.).  I suspect the company won’t spell that out for users, because it doesn’t think most people will want to worry about it – they’ll just “download” the stuff they want to hear a lot, and not worry about anything else.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus