An Apple patent filed in late 2009 gives us a few clues about its possible future plans for streaming music--namely, that you'll start streaming from your device, and seamless finish streaming from a remote source (Apple's huge server farm in North Carolina, most probably, although there's also news about a new farm in Silicon Valley).
"In some embodiments, the user will be able to enable a partial storage/streaming option on their iTunes application," the patent notes, and the tune could start playing from your local device while the code goes off and handshakes with Apple's storage facility "requesting a stream of the remaining portion of the media item upon starting local playback." That's pretty neat, and it could mean a much lighter burden on your Mac's (or PC's) hard drives as you'd technically only have to store parts of every file you've bought rather than the full-sized MP3. There's also the facility to store the files 100% on a cloud storage system, meaning you'd take up literally no space on your local drives--this may be even more convenient and brings the added benefit of no threat of data loss when one of your own drives goes bad, though it does come at the expense of eating up bandwidth.
We wonder how the fixed-line ISPs and 3G mobile suppliers will react to this, in an age of throttling and download ceilings, especially since Apple's the biggest digital music supplier in the U.S.
Security would be handled by way of authenticated devices--similar to how iTunes is limited to five installations on one account now--which means even if someone else gains access to your cloud library, they wouldn't be able to play any content, although there's also a traditional password access layer and the possibility of streaming the data in encrypted format.
Apple's also got an eye on protecting the music label's IP, and notes that "to ensure that devices could only stream media items that the user has purchased or to which the user otherwise has legal access, the content source could require an authentication scheme (e.g., a username and password, or a secure token)." That sounds a little weak, and in this implementation there's no hint that Apple will scan your non-iTunes-purchased MP3s to see if they're legal or not, but it does afford a degree of protection.
There's also mention of chapter markers in audio books, network-specific data sizes (smaller for 3G, bigger for 4G and even 5G), and repeated use of the phrase "seamless" when it comes to mixing part-local, part-remote files--a system that would be "invisible to the user."
The patent shows us how we may be able to soon access our media library on the go without having to sync with a computer and select the music you'd like to listen to, much as services offered by rivals like Spotify do. We have a couple of questions about how it works, including if we'll have to upload our existing files or merely let iTunes recognize them and then access them from a central file vault, and if the system also covers movies and TV shows. Though it's possible the patent was only filed to protect against far-future plans, the idea of reduced burden on local storage makes us once again wonder about those plans for a low-memory iPhone "lite"...
[Image: Flickr user mollyali]
Read More: Most Innovative Companies: Apple