iTunes in the Cloud Versus Other Music Services

The introduction of Apple’s iCloud service, plus iTunes integration–announced during Steve Jobs’s keynote address at this morning’s Worldwide Developers Conference–was arguably the most significant announcement of the day. The big question about Apple’s iTunes in the Cloud offering is, How does it compare to Google Music Beta and Amazon Cloud Drive? 

The short answer: Not all that well. The difference comes down to one major feature that iCloud lacks: online streaming. Initially there was some confusion over whether the service would support streaming of your music over Wi-Fi or 3G. But Apple has confirmed to us that it does not. Unlike Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Music Beta, and mSpot Music, your music from iCloud is downloaded to your device, where it takes up local storage (see the chart at left for a comparison of each service’s features). 

Streaming is a useful feature for people who have huge music libraries because it lets you access your entire library on your phone or tablet from the service’s mobile app. As a result, even if you have 15GB of music and only 5GB of free space on your phone, you can still play your music. The downside of streaming, however, is that if you enter an area with bad reception, your music will stutter and be interrupted. Streaming also puts a huge strain on already-overloaded carrier networks.

The pricing for the four services varies, too. Both Amazon and mSpot use a “freemium” model: You get 5MB of storage for free. Google Music Beta is free for now, though no one knows what kind of pricing model Google will adopt in the future. And while iCloud is free, iTunes Match requires a $25-a-year subscription plan.

“Models that start out with mandatory high subscription fees have no chance of winning over this broader market. Freemium models, like mSpot, offer a way to help bridge the nonpaying music listeners over to paying customers,” mSpot’s cofounder and CEO Daren Tsui said after today’s announcement. “Free is really a big part of what made iTunes 1.0 successful.”

Amazon and Google declined to comment on any of today’s announcements.

Sweet Treats in the iCloud

Even without streaming capabilities, iCloud has some appealing features. If you buy a lot of music via the iTunes Store, being able to wirelessly sync your purchase with ten other devices is pretty sweet. Even sweeter, if you’re running iOS 4.3, you can get a beta of iTunes in the Cloud right now and test it out. By comparison, Amazon lets you access your Amazon MP3 Store purchases from eight devices. mSpot doesn’t have its own music store, but you can tag songs from its streaming radio service and purchase them through Amazon or iTunes–and with a premium mSpot account, you can share those songs with up to five devices. Google Music Beta lets you share with unlimited devices. But of course, there’s no Google Music store as yet.

iTunes Match provides an elegant way for you to get your music into the iCloud quickly. iTunes Match scans your iTunes library and tries to match it with the 18 million songs available in the iTunes Store. For songs in the iTunes Store, you get instant access, and Apple will even upgrade them to its standard 256-kbps AAC format. You can manually upload any songs that Apple can’t identify, and doing so is potentially faster with iCloud than with the upload methods used by Amazon and Google, since iCloud requires an upload only if you can’t find your super-obscure music in the iTunes Store.

I have to vent about this, however: Apple’s statement that it takes “days” to upload your music to Google Music Beta and Amazon Cloud Drive is a huge exaggeration. Naturally, how long the process takes depends on the size of your library and on your network’s speed. But Google Music Beta succeeded in uploading a 5000+ song library on my home network in about half a day. Are they using dial-up in Cupertino? 

iCloud extends far beyond music. It lets you wirelessly share content and information across multiple iOS devices, as well as on your Mac or PC. The information includes documents, contact information, calendar information, photos, and (of course) music.

Drawing comparisons between Apple and the rest of the pack is only natural. Until we get our hands on iCloud and iTunes Match, though, we can only speculate about whether iTunes in the Cloud is likely to be an Amazon Cloud Drive or Google Music Beta killer, or just another also-ran. I could see myself using multiple services interchangeably, depending on what my needs are or which devices I’m using.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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