Considering media in an iCloud

A few weeks ago I took the opportunity to suggest what I’d like to see from a then-rumored iCloud service. My desires haven’t changed more than a smidgen since that time—I'd like syncing that’s intuitive enough for non-geeks, useful collaboration (an iWork.com that actually works and Apple seems to have an obvious interest in), a Web presence, and cloud-based media storage and streaming. Now I’d like to focus a bit more on what Apple might do with cloud-based media, particularly given that Google has since entered the online media fray with its Music Beta service.

It’s all in the locker

Before I fully dip my oar in, let’s bring some clarity to these murky waters by detailing the current state of cloud-based media storage. Today’s two big players, Amazon and Google, provide free services for uploading the music you own to their servers and then streaming it to your computer or portable device. (Amazon’s Cloud Player can stream to computers and both iOS and Android devices, whereas Google’s Music Beta doesn’t currently support the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.) These are passive-locker schemes, meaning a copy of the music you want to stream must be placed in the locker. So, when you purchase a track from Amazon’s MP3 Store, an additional copy is placed in your Cloud Player storage space.

Passive locker systems such as these exist in order to skirt restrictions from the music companies. These companies object to a single copy of a track being offered to multiple users. Rather, they insist that tracks be tied to a specific user. This is accomplished when you upload a copy of a track to one of these lockers or, when purchasing an MP3 track from Amazon, a copy of that track is placed in your Cloud Player. These lockers do not have the blessing of the music companies and it’s likely that a deal will either be struck or Amazon, Google, and music companies will spend some quality time in court.

From a consumer’s perspective there are obvious disadvantages that come with a passive locker. The most obvious is that you have to go to the trouble of uploading your music. Given that Google’s Music Beta allows you to upload up to 20,000 tracks, this can take a very long time for a large music collection. And then there are bandwidth caps. Place the blame where you like, but increasingly companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and Time-Warner are doing their darndest to kill unlimited data plans by imposing bandwidth caps. Free though Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music Beta may be, they get a whole lot less free when you’re charged for “excessive” data usage when uploading and streaming music.

Let’s get active

Lockers can also be active. This is a different scheme where you don’t upload your tracks but instead upload a record of your tracks, much like you upload a record of the contents of your iTunes library so that iTunes can make Genius and iTunes Store recommendations. With such a record in the cloud, you, Joe or Jane User, simply select a track, album, artist, or genre you want to stream; the device checks with the database of songs you’re allowed to play (because you’re the verified owner of that music); and the copy of that music on the server streams to you. This same copy is available for other verified owners to stream.

The advantage of an active locker is that you needn’t spend days uploading tracks (and absorb the bandwidth hit in the process). But it’s not all roses and butterflies. Streaming that content will still count against any bandwidth cap you have. And the music companies will certainly kick about any music whose ownership can’t be verified. So, in the case of Apple, you could stream any music you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store, but not music you’ve ripped from CDs or acquired in more creative ways.

Apple and its options

Now that Apple has officially announced its intention to announce the iCloud service, what might it hold for those interested in streaming media? Implementing an active locker system is the obvious primary feature. And given the rumors that Apple has locked down deals with the major music companies, this is the kind of bet you can make with your eyes closed. The system for uploading a database of tracks is built into iTunes and Apple is well aware of the music you’ve purchased from the iTunes Store. Just get the music companies’ approval, someone to plug in Apple’s new data center, and a new iTunes version and iOS update, and you're ready to roll.

But suppose you’ve populated your iTunes library with something other than tracks purchased from Apple? Such an active locker wouldn’t be terribly attractive. But, since you’re so good at supposing, suppose too that you could create a local locker—one housed on your Mac or PC that you could access via the Internet? Essentially you’re looking at an iTunes Home Sharing feature that’s not restricted to a local network but rather available from anywhere. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky technology. Before it disappeared, Simplify Media was a popular option for doing exactly this. And Rogue Amoeba’s $40 Nicecast currently allows you to stream audio from your Mac to others on the Internet. In short, this isn’t hard. It simply takes the music companies signing off on it and Apple making it easy to do.

And then there’s the Big Enchilada: Subscription offerings. I’m a complete bore on this subject in that I proclaim time and again how much I love subscription services because they allow me to listen to anything my heart desires (and a lot it didn’t know it desired as well) on many of the music-playing devices I own. Apple would have to come up with some euphemism for such a service (because the company has helped make it a dirty word) or build it into a $99-a-year iCloud plan (versus a slimmed down free iCloud version that supports an active locker scheme). But with the proper amount of exposure, a dose of Apple marketing spin, Pandora-like station features, support for iOS streaming and downloads, and a Ping service that included playlist sharing, more people than you might expect could find it a compelling reason to subscribe to iCloud.

But what about video streaming? Apple may make nice with the music companies to allow active lockers and, perhaps, computer-to-mobile streaming, but the real enemy of media streaming is the ISPs. Those that have been most aggressive about capping bandwidth—Comcast, Time-Warner, and AT&T—not-coincidentally also have significant entertainment divisions that would be hurt if consumers were allowed to stream all the entertainment they liked. These companies not only enjoy monopoly status in many markets, but they also control the infrastructure (and, some might suggest, far too many of the elected officials who should be looking into such obvious conflicts of interest). Money-bloated though Apple may be, it’s unlikely to start laying cable across the country in order to deliver Internet access free of bandwidth restrictions.

Streaming media is the future, so this is a battle that eventually must be fought, but Apple may be only one of several participants in such a fight. In the meantime, iCloud is likely to include a music streaming service that may not provide everything I desire but is attractive, easy-to-use, and functional enough for Apple's primary audience.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld.]

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