For quite some time, Apple's iTunes held considerable sway over digital music: how you shopped for it, downloaded it, stored and played it.
However, that long-held dominance might be giving way. On May 10, Google unveiled its Music Beta streaming-music service, following in the steps of Amazon's Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Google's offering lets users upload and store their music in the cloud, and stream those tunes to their computers, Android tablets and smartphones.
As opposed to Amazon's Cloud Drive and Cloud Player, which needs an always-on connection in order to play music, users of Google's Music Beta can keep listening even when offline, thanks to Android devices storing recently played music. Users can upload 20,000 songs for free, but the service itself, at least for the moment, is available only by invitation. Google also has designs on a digital movie-rental service.
Amazon launched its Web-based music locker March 29, offering 5GB of free storage on Amazon Cloud Drive. Enhanced storage plans start at $20 a year for 20GB. The online retailer offers Cloud Player for Web and Android, while those with iOS devices can only play their Amazon-stored music via the Safari browser-no native application exists for Apple mobile devices.
Google has not secured music labels' permission for streaming songs, but in theory they could follow in Amazon's footsteps and argue that the service is fundamentally a storage provider, and therefore not beholden to licensing. Some entities had reacted adversely to Amazon's cloud-music launch, with Sony Music Entertainment publicly expressing its "disappointment."
Meanwhile, rumors abound that Apple is preparing its own cloud-based storage locker for music and other media, possibly via an "iCloud" Web portal. Last year, the company constructed a massive data center in North Carolina, supposedly to help with those future cloud efforts; more recently, according to reports, it spent a reported $4.5 million to purchase the iCloud domain name.
Apple will likely reveal more at this year's Worldwide Developers Conference, set for June 6-10 in San Francisco. "We are going to unveil the future of iOS and Mac OS," Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, wrote in a March 28 statement about the event. "If you are an iOS or Mac OS X software developer, this is the event that you do not want to miss."
Whatever Apple produces at that event-and however its cloud-media plans may tie into that-the entrance of Google and Amazon into the music arena heralds a new chapter in digital music, one where Apple may need to evolve radically from its traditional model in order to keep itself in the conversation.