Apple (stealthily) introduces music in the clouds

While we've waited for Apple to introduce the much-vaunted cloud-based iTunes streaming music service, Apple has already quietly introduced cloud-based music streaming via iDisk using its MobileMe iDisk App.

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iDisk is part of Apple's subscription-based MobileMe offering. Now you can play audio files stored on your iDisk using Apple's also available MobileMe iDisk App.

You won't have read much about this -- the existence of the new feature hasn't been widely publicized -- but now the secret's out. Cnet took a look at this shortly after this support was introduced.

Apple upgraded MobileMe and its MobileMe iDisk App earlier last month, introducing support for audio streaming. iDisk is Apple's online storage service similar to Microsoft Skydrive and Google Docs.

The new feature was included in the v1.2 update to MobileMe iDisk that went live in early July: "Play audio from your iDisk while using another app", Apple's release notes state.

This means that any MobileMe user can upload audio files in MP3 or AAC format to their iDisk account. These tracks can then be played back using your Apple device, including the capacity to stream to multiple devices simulatenously.

Apple's stealthy music streaming feature was revealed by MP3tunes CEO, Michael Robertson, in a blog post yesterday (via. MusicAlly).

"This is not "iTunes in the cloud" but it is definitely moving the Cupertino company in that direction," Robertson wrote.

There's no reason to consider this a working service -- it is perhaps an infrastructure improvement designed to support Apple's future full-scale iTunes streaming plan.

Limitations include lack of playlist support and lack of automatic music uploads as you add new sounds to your iTunes collection. Cover art is not supported.

This support for audio streaming may see Apple fall foul of the labels, the Robertson warns. Music labels have, he says, "told net companies who have inquired about offering personal cloud music services that backing up and downloading music files is OK with limitations, but streaming music files requires entering into a license and paying a per stream fee."

He adds, "Apple's service allows unlimited sharing (no username or password required) and now background streaming - all without a license from the record labels."

Robertson proceeds to suggest Universal Music Group will be annoyed at Apple's move, claiming Apple's service enables unlimited sharing and background music streaming.

Apple could argue that because music is stored on its lockers by named users, that there's no way it is offering music fans the kind of anonymous, limitless music sharing they'd get from P2P services.

I'd also suggest there could be another angle here. Music industry sources this week told Cnet that the iTunes streaming music service Apple is expected to announce soon will be extremely limited. Sources also say Apple hasn't yet reached deals to offer such services with the music labels.

What if this isn't 100 per cent accurate?

I can recall in the run-up to the launch of the iTunes Music Store, countless music industry sources claimed Apple had not yet reached agreements with all the major labels. In fact, Apple had quietly reached secretive top-level deals with at near CEO level with the majors.

If history were to be repeating itself here, as it so often does, Apple may already have reached deals to offer streaming music services.

In this case, Apple is simply fielding a music streaming service in an extremely limited form in order to test its abilities to serve. In the event that support for audio streaming is simply a step too far, then Apple may face some problems.

With Google also expected to field a music streaming service of some kind, AAPL could also be biding its time, relying on its digital music dominance to buffer iTunes while it takes a look at, emulates and betters the search giant's music offering.

We had all expected Apple to quickly introduce cloud music services subsequent to its acquisition of Lala.com. Cnet tells us that former Lala.com executives have been tasked with putting together Apple's video in the cloud attempt.

This could mean Apple's September music event (it is usually September, but Apple has changed its schedules before in order to maintain the element of surprise) will see the introduction of an unlimited television and movie service on a streaming basis.

"Sources at the major film studios have said this year that Apple plans to create "digital shelves" that enable iTunes users to store movies and other media on Apple's servers," Cnet writes.

It is also possible Apple has tasked its former Lala.com teams with focusing on the video side of the service because it already has the infrastructure and knowledge of streamed music it needs on account of purchasing Lala.com in the first place.

All these signs suggest that as well as the introduction of iOS 4 for the iPad, Apple will also reveal an all-you-can eat music and video streaming service.

That service will tie in well to new generations of Wi-Fi-equipped iPods, (iPod touch and possibly iPod nano), and, potentially, an all-new Apple TV.

Alternatively, such speculation will take a nose dive should the labels or the RIAA take action against Apple in complaint at its unofficial music streaming service.

At present, you have a small scale music locker service -- available now -- from Apple.

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