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What Is Apple’s iTunes Secret?

Speculation abounds about tomorrow’s Apple event, much of it focused on an iTunes subscription music service. But industry sources claim the necessary deals simply haven’t happened. Could Apple have become so secretive that even its partners will be surprised?

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[UPDATE: Secret’s out, part of it, anyway]

What does Apple have up its sleeve this time? A tight-lipped tease on Apple.com, promising a transformative announcement from iTunes tomorrow, has lit up the blogosphere. The record number of rumors belongs to Billboard, which offers seven things the announcement might possibly contain: The Beatles go digital at last? Ping/Facebook integration?

Here’s one thing we’d like to see tomorrow: a subscription music service offering unlimited streaming for a monthly fee (possibly reduced, or free, if you accept iAds). Better yet, a service that is based on the cloud, eliminating the need to worry about which songs you’re keeping on which devices.

“The best of all possible worlds would be a combination of the two,” says Rutgers University media professor Aram Sinnreich.

After all, isn’t cloud-based music the likely upshot of Apple’s acquisition, then shuttering, of Lala.com over the past year? And take a closer look at the wording of the haiku-like tease: “Tomorrow is just another day. That you’ll never forget.” The notion of “never forgetting” jibes well with a cloud-based subscription service, since you’d never be left without your music. The cloud would “remember” it for you, even if you  left your iPod at home.

Yet a top industry source has confirmed to us what AllThingsDigital reported earlier today: Apple can’t possibly be announcing either a subscription service or a cloud-based service, since each would require new licensing agreements that Apple simply hasn’t negotiated yet. Apple’s licenses at the moment are all for the download business only, says our source.

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But Sinnreich disagrees: “I would take it all with a grain of salt, since people in a position to know aren’t going to be talking publicly,” he says. “Not only is secrecy essential to private negotiations, but Apple is one of the most secrecy-conscious companies in the history of humankind, and has come under fire for enforcing secrecy so seriously that people have been forced to suicide.” (Here’s that story.)

If ever there were ever a time to hope that Apple’s secrecy machine is working so efficiently that even top industry people may be blindsided tomorrow, it’s now. At this point, if Apple is announcing anything less than a subscription service, a lot of people tomorrow are going to be disappointed.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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