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Rise of the Borg: Apple iCloud

Apple iCloudSo. It’s here. Apple’s first “cloud” music offering — and in all fairness, it’s pretty interesting. And a whole lot more than a music service.

Lets’ review: you buy something on iTunes on your iMac and forget to sync any of your iDevices with that desktop before you take off. No problemo: iCloud has already downloaded that content (music, apps, books — and photos) to your iPhone, your AppleTV and your iPad, all in the background. Oh, and it synched your contacts and calendar all in its free time — which is saying something as MobileMe never managed to get this to work worth a damn. Did I mention that this is free? Yeah. Free. Shazam!

So, aside from cleaning up, and finally fixing, cross-platform synching, what does iCloud do for you?

Not much, yet.

But this Fall, for a paltry $25/year, Apple plans to add iTunes Match. Here’s where things get interesting. While details are still sketchy, this service is apparently what Apple was so busy hammering out those deals with the Big Four music houses for.

It’s supposed to work like this. Match will scan your iTunes Library for tunes it also has in its database of 18M+ songs. If there is a match, iTunes will flag it, and then you can download that file anywhere you want to. Sort of. Rather, iTunes will let you download a 256kbps version of that file to wherever and whenever you want it. It’s like a permanent backup. Lose your hard drive? No problem. Set up the new one and log in to iCloud and re-download your entire library. In 256kps iTunes+ quality. It’s not nothing, no?

If Match cannot find your music in it’s database, you have the option of uploading those unmatched files manually. Presumably, you can upload your higher-than-256kbps-res versions this way, too. Uploaded files can be then downloaded at need or desire, with the rest of the library. They’re yours, after all.

A neat perk — all those 128kps files you’ve been lugging around for a decade or more? Apple will replace them all with 256kps iTunes+ quality versions. I’m guessing that Apple is simply going to pretend as if you didn’t copy all of them off of a Napster supernode before their network got sued out of existence. Anyway, I think this is just fantastic — and depending on the flexibility and details of how the service gets implemented, I may buy a short-term trial just to update all those one-off tracks I ripped back when 128k was “good” and disk space was expensive.

Some clarifications: at the moment, Apple is not talking about an all-you-can-eat streaming-only service like Rhapsody. The iCloud service is primarily a product enhancement as opposed to a product in its own right. It doesn’t provide you with any new music, apps, or books. It doesn’t rent anything anything to you and no, there are no per-usage fees to access the music, apps or books you’ve already paid for. All it does is increase the ease-of-use and accessibility of your other, already-purchased products, and add value by providing some disaster-recovery capabilities. Not a bad play, but really nothing all that exciting either. That said, at $25/year, it’s kind of a no-brainer — I’d have paid that just to get Mobile Me to actually do what it was supposed to with my business calendar, but hey, maybe that’s just me.

Where this service falls short should be pretty obvious to audiophiles: 256kbps is pathetic. Quite frankly, who gives a damn. While the for-pay Match service may allow me to retrieve some 64kbps and 128kbps files from audio limbo (they sound so bad I never play them anymore), that’s what, a month’s service? And then what? Cancellation! Honestly, I never buy music from iTunes. In fact, just the contrary — I buy more CDs these days than I ever have just so that I can rip bit-perfect lossless files off of them. So while the free calender-synch support is just wonderful, the for-pay content synch is pretty much irrelevant — at least to me. I have all my files very handy and I have been rather successful at copying them from one device to another, thanks for asking.

What this builds toward, I suppose, is a streaming service. With the infrastructure in place, I don’t see why iTunes/iCloud can’t wipe out Pandora, Last.fm and all of the other streaming services. Or buy them. Or something.

To me, I am left wondering why the hoopla. If I had to rate this on the ho-hum-o-meter, this would rate a positive snore. Which leads me to think that this is yet another building block to something else. A stepping stone. We’ll see.

Here’s my wish list for the Great Big Musical Apple:

  • Something as simple and elegant as (but more flexible than) Pandora that streams higher-res audio (something better than 256kps would be marvelous).
  • The ability to buy at least Redbook quality audio tracks from iTunes. Higher resolution offerings would be awesome.
  • Have iTunes do sample rate switching.
  • Make iTunes a high-fidelity playback engine offering performance on par with Channld’s Pure Music or Sonic Studios’ Amarra.

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