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Apple launches iTunes Match cloud music service

by Phil Hornshaw

After months of waiting, another big piece of Apple’s cloud offering has finally been released to the public: iTunes Match.

You might remember the name from way back at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference 2011 in June, when then-CEO Steve Jobs announced the service as part of Apple’s iOS 5 operating system. Along with iTunes in the Cloud, iTunes Match allows users access to their music wherever they are, with the use of several different devices.

Unlike Google Music or the Amazon Cloud Player, both streaming music services where users upload their actual music tracks to a cloud server and then stream them back to various devices, iTunes Match includes minimal actual uploading. Instead, iTunes scans users’ music libraries and “matches” all the tracks that are contained in Apple’s servers. Anything you purchased from iTunes goes in automatically, and anything else is matched by the system to give you a high-quality 256 kilobits per second version of the track, regardless of whether your copy is of a lesser quality.

Anything from your library that Apple doesn’t have in its iTunes servers and can’t match gets uploaded to Apple’s cloud servers, which still gives you access to your tracks even if you didn’t purchase them from iTunes. And with iTunes in the Cloud, you’re capable of seeing every track you’ve purchased with the service and can redownload it at will (instead of just streaming with iTunes Match). As Mashable pointed out in its review of the service, you can create playlist and smart playlists on your iOS devices, and iTunes in the Cloud will share them with your other devices, like your computers (and vice versa).

According to PC World, however, there are still some limitations on the iTunes Match service. Unlike Amazon or Google’s cloud music services, iTunes Match doesn’t yet support big music libraries – users are limited to 25,000 songs apiece for their $25 per year cost of entry. However, anything you buy from iTunes doesn’t count toward that total; it’s only tracks that you haven’t purchased through Apple. Also, at least for now, iTunes Match is only available in the United States.

The plus side is that iTunes Match allows die-hard iTunes users a cloud alternative to the services offered from the likes of Google, Amazon and players like mSpot. Services offered by iCloud mean that Apple users don’t have to keep a ton of music tracks stored on a machine for all eternity: New cloud-based services mean that if you’ve got a reliable Internet connection, you could presumably ditch all your stored copies of songs and just stream to your heart’s content.

Apple’s iCloud service and all the things that go with it are the latest iterations of its MobileMe service, but despite their similarities, it seems Apple has rethought how it handles the cloud after the relative failure of the MobileMe service. Whereas that service handled lots of different things like calendars, tasks, email and so on (many of which are still handled by iCloud), when it comes to a subscription service, Apple is streamlining its approach down to just music and perhaps some other pieces of purchased content. In this way, it seems that Apple will be able to (hopefully) avoid service interruptions and keep customers satisfied as they transition to the cloud. It’s likely that iTunes Match will be a popular service if Apple has learned from its mistakes and runs iTunes Match as well as it seems like it will.