Apple Music might be the most un-Apple product the company has ever released. The people who rushed to download iOS 8.4 just to be among the first to sign up for the three-month free trial didn’t find the revolutionary and pioneering features that usually accompany Apple releases. If you’ve ever used Spotify or Beats, Apple Music is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a modern streaming service: Lots of songs, unique playlists, and genre-based radio stations.
That’s not to say it’s not great. Apple has exploded onto the streaming landscape with an excellent music client that elevates the user interface and experience, but truth be told, there isn’t much about the core concept that you can’t get elsewhere. A little Spotify, a dash of I Heart Radio, and a few cups of Beats: Apple Music is more of an amalgam of the best parts of other services than a uniquely Apple product. With the exception of a few high-profile exclusives like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Taylor Swift’s 1989, the Cupertino streaming service follows the model established by its peers and simply integrates it with your owned music library.
But none of that is going to matter to the tens of millions of people who will become paying subscribers once their free trial ends at the end of September. With Music, Apple is muscling its way into a very established market and using its significant cash and clout to build an instant customer base. It’s a different sort of tact for the company, and one that could very well change the way it approaches Internet services, not just for streaming music but for its whole cloud platform.
Ahead in the cloud
Apple has never been known for its Internet services. From MobileMe to iCloud, Apple has tried for years to implement a seamless, integrated suite of Internet services that combines the power and versatility of Dropbox, Gmail, and Flickr under a single roof. It’s been something of a hit-or-miss affair, with spotty roll-outs and glaring omissions that don’t quite stack up to its would-be competitors.
It’s different with Apple Music. Last May, Apple made a big splash by buying the Beats brand for upwards of $3 billion, an out-of-character purchase for a company generally more interested in snatching up smaller companies with far less global reach. But Beats represented everything Apple needed to jump into the streaming business with both feet: An influential brand, a well-connected charismatic executive, and a strong service. This isn’t Google buying Nest or Facebook buying Instagram—in about a year’s time, it was able to turn one of the least-popular streaming apps into a major Apple-branded service that comes pre-installed on every iOS 8.4 and Mac OS 10.10.4 device.
Consequently, Apple Music won’t experience the same growing pains that iCloud has. Apple could have built a streaming service from the ground up—and I have no doubt the company toyed with such an idea—but it saw an opportunity with Beats to hit the ground running. With a solid foundation already in place, Apple can focus on the things that will set its music service apart instead of ironing out deep wrinkles or even convincing people of its value.
Look and listen
Few people will remember that iTunes wasn’t a home-grown product either. The idea of a desktop mp3 player wasn’t exactly a novel concept at the time of iTunes’ release, but it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as today’s streaming services. When Apple bought SoundJam MP it was an under-the-radar purchase that barely made a ripple. Back in 2000, few people could see the future of digital music like Steve Jobs could—he wasn’t just buying a desktop mp3 client, he was putting a down-payment on the future.
With Beats, Apple made an equally large investment, paying a sizable sum to get into a game that is already teeming with major players. Apple Music won’t be a slow build like iTunes was: The ecosystem is already in place, and Apple’s biggest advantage over its competitors is the little things it can add to make the experience more seamless. Siri integration alone is reason enough for Spotify users to make the switch, and the excellent discovery features will surely keep people tuned in as well.
But the killer component is the easy integration with your existing library, a feature that I suspect will be iOS-only. If Android users miss out on the iTunes Match feature, Apple Music loses some of its luster, and I suspect it’s a ploy to woo Moto and Galaxy owners once the app lands (right around the time they start reading all those glowing reviews for the latest iPhone in the fall).
Apple might have overpaid for Beats based on strict market value, but what it brings to the company is priceless. Buying Beats eliminated years of stumbles and hiccups, and puts Apple Music on an even plain with the best services out there. If it succeeds—and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t—I expect Apple to apply this business model to the other Internet services it offers, snatching up companies that do it right instead of trying to go it alone. It famously made a nine-figure offer to Dropbox back in the file storage service’s early years, but Apple was a different company then. Steve Jobs was forever reluctant to buy established, big-name companies, and it’s hard to imagine him signing off on a purchase as big as Beats. But today’s Apple is far more aggressive, and has no problem with spending money to keep its customers happy.
I could see Apple making similar splashy purchases to fill other holes in its portfolio of products. With more money than it can possibly spend, Apple can easily afford go on a shopping spree without taking on much risk at all. Even multi-billion dollar acquisitions of companies like Twitter, Netflix, or Square are no longer off the table. Any one of them would work extremely well under Apple’s umbrella, expanding its ecosystem and bringing new worlds of entertainment and communication into the fold.
Where the iTunes Music Store fundamentally changed our relationship with music, paving the way for the proliferation of Spotify, Rdio, and others, the most groundbreaking thing about Apple Music is how it was born. Apple studied the landscape and bought a company that had the pieces it needed—it may have momentarily skated to where the puck was, but it was only to hit it further up the ice.
With the launch of Apple Music, Apple has made a product that’s distinctly theirs by building on the groundwork Beats had already laid. It’s more than a rebranding: The core technology may be built on the strong foundation it bought, but the way it is incorporated into the existing services is Apple’s gambit. All things being equal, I don’t know why an iPhone user would stick with Spotify.
Apple Music is certainly a very nice service. But its eventual paying subscribers won’t just be paying for millions of songs. They’ll be investing in the next step.