Lala and iTunes: What it means to me

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As a fan of subscription music services such as Rhapsody and Napster, my interest was heartily piqued when the rumors of Lala’s acquisition were confirmed by Apple. But not for the same reasons that others seem to be het up about the deal.

Because I am a Rhapsody and Napster subscriber and use a Sonos Multi-room Music System to channel music throughout my home, I’ve had no need for Lala. After all, if you can stream Napster’s entire music library for $5 a month (and get five tracks per month in the bargain), why pay 10 cents per track for Lala’s streams? Likewise, a free full-length preview doesn’t mean much if everything is already “free” with a subscription.

And should Apple simply rebrand Lala and add its complete feature set to iTunes, I don’t see my attitude changing much on this front. The beauty of subscription is that you can hear everything, at any time you’re connected to the service. For music junkies like me who consume massive amounts of new music, I don’t see the attraction in the dime-a-dance stream scheme.

I do, however, see real benefits in two of Lala’s other features—the ability to keep an eye on what your buddies are listening to and access to the contents of your iTunes library from any Web browser.

iTunes is almost entirely deaf to social networking. Sure, there are ways to tell the world what you’re listening to via iChat, Twitter, and Facebook, but who really wants a ticker-tape account of one person’s listening habits? Ah, but provide a rundown of several buddies’ daily playlists and you’ve got something far more useful. And Lala provides that.

iTunes' Genius feature does a darned fine job of recommending music based on the contents of your music library, but those suggestions can be broad and often more of the same-old same-old. More compelling to me are those recommendations from friends who’ve broken from their usual listening habits and taken a left turn into provocative new musical territory. Now, instead of getting the random e-mail message or picking up such clues in a chat exchange, I can keep an eye on select friends’ playlists and, thanks to links to that music, give a listen when I come across something of interest.

And then there’s Lala’s Music Mover. This is akin to the old “music locker” feature offered years ago by some services. The idea is that you upload a list of the music in your library (thus demonstrating that you already own this collection of music) and Lala grants streaming access to copies of those tunes in its library. I discussed such a feature a couple of years ago as something Apple might want to offer MobileMe subscribers.

Gaining remote access to your real library is possible using a tool such as Simplify Media. But Simplify Media requires a cooperative connection between your location and home. Far easier to simply call up a Website and stream from there. (And yes, on an iPhone or iPod touch too.)

No one knows what Apple intends to do with Lala, but my hope is that this is one more nail in the coffin of restricted music. iTunes 9’s Home Sharing feature has helped break down the barrier between music libraries on a local network. Making music libraries available from anywhere is another step in the right direction.

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