I'm surprised by some of the negative reaction in the blogosphere about the possibility of Apple introducing an unlimited music offering. I don't think people understand the full implications of such an offering, and people don't realize what's broken in today's model of $.99 per song. The situation actually reminds me a lot of the "big switch" that is currently underway in information technology -- the move away from software and hardware ownership towards software as a service, or as Google likes to call it, "cloud computing."
Just as some businesses cling to the ownership of hardware and software, some individuals are clinging to ownership of music.
In order to help influence Apple and consumers, I thought I'd explain why an "unlimited music" service in the cloud is in everybody's best interest.
"Unlimited music" facilitates music discovery (obviously)
People who know me also know that I love music. I listen. Constantly.
For me, a subscription music model is absolutely necessary. If I purchased every song I listen to, I'd spend a significant part of my income on music. Thus, I've used a number of subscription music services over the years...the first was Pressplay, which was then renamed Napster...then Yahoo Music...and now that they're shuttering Yahoo Music, I've switched to Rhapsody.
These services have been somewhat disappointing because of DRM glitches, incomplete music libraries, and, of course, the fact that they don't work with the iPod. But nonetheless, they were still by far the best way for me to discover and sample new music from a variety of genres I wouldn't experiment in if I had to pay specifically for that music. Would I buy a Britney Spears or Kanye West song for $.99? Heck, no. But would I play these "musicians" at a party, or maybe at the gym? Sure. Having a subscription service was the only way for me to get the music I want at a reasonable price, at least without resorting to piracy.
Thanks to subscription music, I've grown my musical palette much more than I would have if I had to buy each and every song I listen to.
But, clearly, the notion of "unlimited music" hasn't been able to capture as much mindshare as the iPod.
How the iPhone changes everything
For several years my need for subscription music far outweighed my desire to be cool and own an iPod.
Of course, the moment Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, I jumped on the Apple bandwagon. The iPhone is revolutionary in so many ways besides music that I happily endorse the device to anybody who will listen. Despite the shortcomings of iTunes and the iPhone, I think it's going to be a while before a different company releases another phone that combines the internet and entertainment so well.
But what's not widely discussed about the iPhone is this:
The iPhone has infinite storage capacity and infinite computing power.
Because the iPhone is a fully internet-enabled device with Wifi, it can outsource many interesting computations to the cloud, and rely on the cloud to send back whatever information the iPhone needs. The iPhone's only limitations are in how quickly it can retrieve data from the internet, and how quickly its processor can handle this data.
iPhone users already enjoy the benefits of the cloud to access video through YouTube, or through a browser-based video website like vTap. (vTap itself is worthy of a blog post, as vTap is absolutely fantastic on the iPhone). Thanks to services like YouTube and vTap, I can watch videos and news anywhere I've got a WiFi connection (which, these days, is almost everywhere). And once the next generation iPhone is released on a 3G network, I expect I'll be able to watch video anywhere, even on a cellular network.
Music in the cloud
Because of the cloud, I don't have to sync videos from my desktop computer to the iPhone. If I threw my desktop PC and laptop into the garbage, I could still watch videos on the iPhone.
Since the iPhone can stream internet video, it's also capable of streaming audio. The iTunes Wifi Music Store is further proof.
But the way the iPhone works today, I can only listen to as much music I've stored on the device. I've got 30 GB or so of music on my desktop, and I can't fit that on the iPhone. If I want to hear a particular song, I can only hope that I previously synced it. Today, the iPhone is a pitiful device for music discovery and for accessing songs I have on my desktop computer.
The current model also forces us down a less than desirable path of maintaining our own individual music libraries. Today most people store their music on computers and iPods that they maintain. If your computer's hard disk dies or your iPod is stolen, you're screwed. iTunes and the iPod are pitiful solutions for preserving your music library.
Music in the cloud solves both of these problems. Discover music when you want to. No need to worry about storage or backup.
The death of syncing: how Apple could lose the iTunes empire
The most painful part of using any MP3 player is the syncing of music to the player.
People forget this, but the iPod was not a runaway success from the get-go. The iPod only took off after it was made dead simple to sync music to the player through iTunes, both on Macs and PCs. And music sales through iTunes only took off because people used iTunes to sync music to the iPod.
But what if it was unnecessary to use iTunes to get music on the iPod? Most people wouldn't bother with iTunes.
This day is not far away. Thanks to the iPhone SDK, it should be possible to port a streaming music service to the iPhone, probably within the next six months. Similarly, I'd expect additional ways to transfer music from your computer to the iPhone/iPod. And when this happens, iTunes becomes unnecessary. (Apple could continue to prevent this through a combination of legal and technical hurdles, but I think that this is begging for antitrust review).
The death of syncing is inevitable, and with it, so comes the death of iTunes, or at least what iTunes has been most useful for.
In order for iTunes to continue to get eyeballs, it has to become useful for something besides syncing and the occasional music purchase. And what could be more useful than an iTunes service that lets you access any piece of music anywhere?
So here's hoping that Apple gets this right. Maybe Steve Jobs was right that people weren't ready for subscription music a few years ago, and surely, some people resist the idea even today.
But in the long run, the benefits of a music delivery service in the cloud are clear, and the iPhone is the device that should make the dream of any song, anywhere, at any time a reality.