The InterWebs are ablaze about Apple's plans to acquire Lala. Among the rampant speculation, there's one amazingly important nugget of information: iTunes might be cloud-bound. It's the future of digital music.
Although there's been no official confirmation, The Wall Street Journal has learned from insiders that Apple bought Lala Media Inc. late last week and is considering a Web-based strategy for iTunes. Lala used to be an independent online streaming music service—similar to systems like Pandora or Spotify—which let you buy music and then stream it to whatever device you use that has access to the Web. The site worked by letting you create playlists, formerly called "radio stations," was 100% legal, and even had an upload service that let you put your own music into your playlists from ripped CDs.
In other words, it's pretty much the diametric opposite of iTunes, which is still hard-drive dependent and hard to share music from. Apple's formidable system relies on you legally purchasing music and then downloading it from Apple's vast database onto your own machine, where you effectively own it. Your iTunes app then catalogues the database of purchased music (and files you rip from your own CDs) and lets you build playlists, rate the music and transfer it via cable to your iPod or iPhone. It's a system that's very much based on physically moving MP3s around on your different hard drives, and there's no streaming involved—except for Apple's very recent introduction of home sharing, which lets you play iTunes music stored on another Mac only over your home network.
And it's this fact that's got everyone a-chattering, because one obvious conclusion is that Apple's going to enable some form of cloud-based iTunes library. It makes perfect sense, especially given that the buying public's trend is towards wireless iPod Touches and iPhones now instead of hard-wired iPods. No one can doubt that the future for digital music players is integrated into multi-purpose wirelessly connected devices. And this is a perfect setup for wirelessly streamed music. It just makes sense. Imagine you want to listen to a particular track right now, when you're trotting down the street—but you didn't sync up that music when you connected your iPhone to iTunes this morning. Currently, you're stuck. But with streaming iTunes, it would be a breeze. No-one's suggesting iTunes would live entirely in the cloud, though, since the ecosystem it forms with your devices is much more complex, with contacts, text messages and video forming part of the mix—Apple would be more likely to keep track of what music you're allowed to have access to, and do it all that way. And this would certainly explain its vast new server farm facility.
There's another reason Apple might be embarking on this new path: Spotify. The online streaming service has seen roaring success in the U.K., and is trying to expand its operation to the other side of the Atlantic. It's definitely coming, but is being held back by negotiation difficulties with U.S. record companies. Apple's team is shrewd, and you can bet the moves to give iTunes some streaming music powers is so that it gets a footprint in the market, and benefits from the halo effect of iPhone sales and its existing role as America's number one music retailer. Buying Lala and floating iTunes in the cloud makes even more sense then.
And there's the other thing to think about: Cloud based services will be a big part of the computing experience in the near future, across many aspects of how we use PCs. Microsoft is putting Office in the cloud, for goodness sake—one of its premier products. As wireless and 3G systems become more reliable and faster, having your files store in the cloud makes even more sense: For one, your data's more secure. And being able to access the same music file from, say, your iPhone or iTablet or MacBook at the drop of a hat is just so much more convenient. It's why I, with some 59 days worth of music in an iTunes folder on my hard drive, use online streaming services sometimes—for convenience, as well as social net integration with Twitter. Basically everything music-related will be streamed from the cloud, and Apple's wise to it.
[Via The Wall Street Journal]