iTunes Match arrives

In Praise of iTunes Match

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When Apple announced iTunes Match in June as a part of a raft of announcements related to iCloud, I was a little skeptical. I had just been released from my annual $99 payment to Apple for MobileMe, thanks to iCloud—I wasn’t excited about a new annual subscription taking its place.

Instead, I ended up figuring I’d pay $25 for iTunes Match, upgrade my tracks to higher-quality versions, and then never pay again. I heard a lot of other people saying the same thing.

Perhaps back then the details of iTunes Match weren’t quite clear enough, or perhaps I just wasn’t prepared to understand them. But after having used iTunes Match for a few weeks now, I’ve come to appreciate the service quite a bit… and have accepted that I’ll probably keep paying for it for years to come.

For me, it starts with keeping the integrity of my iTunes library across many different devices. I have an iMac on my desk at work, a Mac mini with all my music on it at home, and a MacBook Air with me just about everywhere I go. Plus an iPad and an iPhone. A lot of the features of iTunes were originally designed for the idea of a single jukebox on a single computer, and it showed. Syncing with iPods and iPhones was okay, but if you had a second Mac somewhere else, things started to fragment quickly. (Take the concept of play counts. I love personal statistics, and the idea of finding out exactly how many times I’ve played a song is great! But listening on a few different Macs—or losing the play count when you delete a song from your iTunes library for some reason—meant that the play count was never meaningful to me.)

With iTunes Match, that stuff—most notably playlists and song metadata—goes everywhere and stays in sync. You could completely delete your iTunes music library on your main computer and then reconstitute it from the cloud, playlists included. As someone who has had to build and re-build playlists over the years, that’s pretty cool.

Having my entire music library with me, wherever I go, is more compelling than I thought it would be. A few weeks ago I was stuck at an airport with free Wi-Fi for a few hours, working on my MacBook Air. Sure, I had my iPhone there with a small subset of songs loaded on it. But my laptop’s copy of iTunes included links to my entire music library, including all my playlists. I double-clicked a song, and it just played, streaming the file from Apple’s servers. I pressed the Genius button and it assembled a Genius Playlist from my own library. It was seamless, just as if I’d had my entire many-gigabyte library with me on my MacBook Air’s drive.

Though my time in the airport made me realize iTunes Match’s worth, I do have some questions about its future direction. I’m not sure that the iTunes Match experience on iOS devices is good enough yet. Users should be able to sync with a local copy of iTunes and still have access to iTunes Match without exploiting features that feel like bugs. Songs you download will sometimes disappear. I still feel confused when I use my iPhone’s music app about what I’ll find on there, what’s available to play, and what will require a download over a Wi-Fi or 3G connection. It makes me uneasy, and that suggests to me that Apple hasn’t quite cracked iTunes Match in the iOS Music app.

But while there are still details that need to be refined, I have to admit that the more I use iTunes Match, the more its benefits unfold before me. Just the other day I realized that I no longer need to keep two copies of all my music on my computer at home, since iCloud can serve as my music backup. And now those play counts actually seem to have meaning!

So yes, upgrading all my old iTunes purchases has been great. Getting high-quality versions of my CD rips without having to dig out my entire CD collection from the garage and re-rip them manually? Awesome. But I’m starting to appreciate the benefits of a long-term relationship with iTunes Match, too. I can see myself in a year from now finding it impossible to cancel the service and give up all these other features. Looks like Apple might have my annual payment back, after all.

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