Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Don’t Wake the Dragon, But Maybe Strike Up a Licensing Deal With It

Since the rumour mill has all but confirmed an upcoming revamp/refresh/reinvigoration of the MobileMe service, apparently to be dubbed “iCloud”, it would be a good idea to explore the problems they might attempt to solve with it, specifically with music syncing.

In recent memory, Apple has been rather slow to introduce necessary (or “necessary”) features to iOS devices; copy and paste, and multitasking are two of the more notable examples. But, as it has been said time and time again, Apple tends to implement these features in a more logical, more intuitive and better way than the contemporary best version. In the last few weeks, Amazon has introduced a digital locker, and Google just announced Google Music Beta. Both are cloud-based music storage solutions (marketing speak be damned). And now Apple seems poised to jump into this field with a service of their own.

The current crop of cloud storage spaces work beautifully for documents, bookmark syncing and photos, all of which tend to be formats measured in kilobytes or just a few megabytes. Music and movies tend to reside in libraries measuring several gigabytes. While I would like to be enthused about Google Music Beta, it requires the user to upload their library. A 1,000-song library, using Apple’s estimations, is about 8 GB. Assuming a typical home user will have a 1 mbps upload, this will take over 18 hours of solid uploading to initially sync their entire music library. That’s simply far too long. Any time music is added to or removed from your library, Google’s tool will automatically make the necessary changes in the cloud. It’s good that it’s automatic, but it still takes time. It’s 2011. Why does online storage have the same (in)convenience it did back in 1995 with FTP?

Amazon does a way better job. Any time you purchase a song through Amazon MP3, that song gets added to your Digital Locker. This also goes for movies and TV shows purchased through those Amazon services. And yet neither solution helps me much, because I am Canadian.

In fact, anyone outside of the US cannot appreciate either of these solutions. Neither Amazon nor Google sought licensing from any record label to begin their cloud locker services. You can argue ad nauseum about whether or not they should be required to get this permission, but the fact remains that they’re treading on their (lawyers’) interpretation of American fair use laws.

In summary, then, the current state of cloud music storage relies on American fair use laws and individual users to manually upload their music files. Wouldn’t it be nice to change that?

Unlike Google or Amazon, Apple sells digital music in 26 countries. Apple has a much greater advantage in ensuring that the service they provide will be available in all of (or a majority of) the countries the iTunes Store is available in. Conversely, Apple has a major disadvantage if this service were to only be available in the US.

How will this service work, then? Will the user be required to upload all of the individual music files they own, à la Google Music? This is slow and cumbersome, as established. Will all tracks purchased from iTunes automatically be made available in the cloud? This has the potential to exclude large amounts of a user’s library if that user has ripped music from CDs or purchased it from other services such as Amazon MP3 and Beatport. As an example, while I have a substantial music library, only around 500 songs in it have been purchased from the iTunes Store, significantly less than the number of CDs I’ve ripped.

It would be in Apple’s best interest to allow access to all songs purchased through iTunes by default, but also allow users to add their own music to the bucket. The problem, as ever, comes back to the record labels and local laws. Since Apple cannot determine whether or not you actually own the songs you’re uploading, they might be granting you storage of your enormous library of pirated music. This would, to put it mildly, displease the record labels.

It’s a tricky and complex issue. Not providing users with the ability to upload their own files is grounds for user dissatisfaction, but allowing them this ability will piss off the record labels. And when record labels get pissed off, ordinary people tend to suffer most.