Apple’s Online Music Locker: A Great Idea (That’s 10+ Years Old)

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In case you hadn’t noticed, this whole online music thing is heating up. First Amazon rolled out its Cloud Player, then Google Music came along, and now Apple is expected to announce its own online music service—the big money’s on something called “iCloud” that’ll be unveiled on June 6th.

The difference between Apple’s offering and offerings from both Amazon and Google is that Apple has apparently gotten the blessing of three of the four major record labels, with the fourth said to be right around the corner. But why should Apple care about playing nice with the record labels when Google and Amazon have already thumbed their noses at the music industry?

If what Businessweek is reporting turns out to be accurate, Apple’s service will behave differently than Google’s and Amazon’s in that you won’t have to actually upload your entire music collection to Apple’s servers.

Says Businessweek:

“Armed with licenses from the music labels and publishers, Apple will be able to scan customers’ digital music libraries in iTunes and quickly mirror their collections on its own servers, say three people briefed on the talks. If the sound quality of a particular song on a user’s hard drive isn’t good enough, Apple will be able to replace it with a higher-quality version. Users of the service will then be able to stream, whenever they want, their songs and albums directly to PCs, iPhones, iPads, and perhaps one day even cars. And the music industry gets a chance at the next best thing after selling shrink-wrapped CDs: monthly subscription fees, à la Netflix (NFLX) and the cable companies.”

Sounds awesome, right? Magical, even. It’s also an idea that’s been around for over 10 years.

Old-timers like me (people in their—GASP!—30’s) may remember and a very cool feature of the site called “” that let you do pretty close to what Apple’s reportedly getting set to offer, but with physical CDs. was started by Michael Robertson, who made the record labels’ short-list of public enemies with the feature when it was rolled out in 2000. You’d pop a CD you owned into your computer, it’d get referenced against’s servers, and you’d then get instant access to a streaming version of your album directly through the site.

Universal Media Group did NOT like this idea one bit and sued, won, and settled with UMG for over $53 million.

Robertson now runs, a cloud-based music storage service that allows you to upload your music files to its servers for streaming playback on computers and portable devices. This has drawn the ire of EMI, which claims that MP3tunes’ music locker concept facilitates piracy.

And therein lies the rub for Apple—and people who use Apple’s service.

Robertson’s contention seems to be that once you buy your music, you own it no matter what format its in. The music companies clearly don’t see things that way, as evidenced by their successful shutdown of and claims that’s digital locker features are too piracy-friendly.

So that’s where the whole idea of the monthly subscription fee comes into play with whatever Apple’s supposed to be rolling out.

From the sounds of it, you’ll be able to cross-reference your music against Apple’s servers, but you’ll have to pay a monthly fee to use the service. In that respect, it becomes similar to unlimited music offerings from Rhapsody, Napster and Microsoft’s Zune.

And that’ll be how and why Apple can swap out higher-quality tracks than the ones you have on your computer and—more importantly—why you won’t hear the music labels screaming about how Apple’s locker is piracy-friendly. Your monthly subscription fee will essentially be paying for any of those tracks you pirated in the past.

But you probably shouldn’t expect to be able to use iCloud if you stop paying for your subscription, nor should you expect to be able to play tracks back on any devices you own. If Apple somehow manages to offer access to the service for free—including access to songs you never paid for in the first place—it’ll be a pretty significant development for the industry as a whole.

However, you should expect Apple to make the service attractive enough from an interface and usability standpoint that plenty of people won’t mind shelling out for a subscription. Even the simple way that tracks get added to your locker—no uploads—ought to be enough to win people over; not to mention that a subscription service would likely (hopefully) entail unlimited music downloads for one flat rate on top of those digital locker features.

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