Three Features Apple’s Rumored Streaming Music Service Probably Wouldn’t Support

Apple may unveil a streaming music service at WWDC next week.

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Matt Peckham

Apple may finally debut its long-rumored streaming music service next week at its annual show-and-tell press event, reports the New York Times. Make that most likely next Monday then, or the opening day of the Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), which runs June 10 to 14.

Monday would be the day Apple’s bigwigs take the stage at the Moscone Center in San Francisco at 10 a.m. PT (my colleague Harry McCracken will be there in person), probably to trumpet new versions of iOS and OS X and possibly show off new Mac portables. Whether or not we see a ready-for-action Apple streaming music service (or at least its announcement, with rollout pushed down the road to iOS 7’s arrival) is said to depend on Apple’s negotiations with music companies — still reportedly inching along based on quibbles over financial particulars.

Over the weekend Apple signed a deal with Warner Music Group, says the Times, fueling speculation that Apple might be close (the company already has a deal with Universal Music Group), but Apple is still, reportedly, hammering things out with Sony, whose Sony/ATV catalog — harboring over two million copyrights — is the largest in the world, and includes a staggering array of songwriters, from Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and The Beatles to Norah Jones, Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift. Launching a streaming music service without Sony/ATV support would be pointless.

Even with it, the Times‘ and Bloomberg’s sources suggest what Apple’s up to leans more toward Internet radio than a holy grail of music streaming services; assuming that’s right, here’s a quick list of things I wish were coming, but probably aren’t.

Lossless streaming audio

While Apple’s made some interesting gestures toward audiophiles with its Mastered for iTunes spec, it’s still dodging the bottom line when it comes to audio fidelity. To be fair, its competitors come up short here as well, but Apple’s sort of the pack leader when it comes to digital music — it, more than any other company, is responsible for the questionable state of digital consumer audio as most experience it today. Everything Apple currently sells on iTunes is lossy, meaning audio that’s been compressed in a way that actually alters its fidelity to keep files small. Despite advances in broadband and cellular network bandwidth capabilities since iTunes debuted back in 2001 (to say nothing of advances in consumer device storage), Apple’s stubbornly held to its implicit convenience-trumps-quality position, and it’ll surely do the same with a streaming music service. (Yes, when listening on smartphones, earbuds and in noisy environments, the perks of lossless fidelity go out the window, but for those with high-end playback equipment, say at home or in a studio, a “lossless” option remains a must-have. Maybe we’re a vanishingly small market; it’s just a shame lossless playback from the industry’s preeminent music peddlers isn’t an option in 2013.)

Ad-free playback

I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But according to this Bloomberg followup to the Times piece, Apple’s new streaming service will work more like the free version of Pandora, streaming songs based on your tastes, with stations developed from your song or artist selections and surfacing ads between tracks. I’m seeing nothing about a subscription option, which, if Bloomberg’s right, would mean Apple isn’t positioning this streaming adjunct to iTunes as a serious Spotify — or, for that matter, Google Music — competitor. Like Pandora, you’d also have the option to purchase a given song from the iTunes Store, though Pandora also offers an ad-free subscription option.

A universal player

Companies that build underlying industry platforms (the operating environment, say Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, Linux, etc.), then design the applications that live on these platforms, have in my view an implicit obligation to serve the market, not just the platform. If the market extends significantly beyond the platform (say, as Android’s does contrasted with iOS) and you’re designing an application as broad-appealing as a music streaming service, foregoing multi-platform support to sweeten your platform’s appeal seems disingenuous (in addition to hastening application obsolescence if your platform backslides). I’ll reserve judgement until Apple makes any of this official — perhaps it’ll be more than just “Pandora for iTunes” — but if it’s not, it’s hard to imagine it causing much attrition among Spotify’s platform-agnostic consumer demographic.

Am I missing the point?

But maybe that’s not what Apple’s up to. While I think it’d behoove a company like Apple to build an end-all, be-all streaming music service, maybe it doesn’t want to. Maybe it’s content to craft a radio-esque iTunes streaming adjunct — an incremental feature update that preaches the value of iTunes to the crowd, sort of like Genius or iTunes Match.

Consider that Pandora’s audience (of registered users) is said to be over 150 million; Spotify, by comparison, commands around 20 million, of which only a quarter are paying subscribers. Imagine Apple gradually eating into Pandora’s market space (as Bloomberg notes, Pandora’s shares dove 11 points yesterday when the Times story broke) by flipping Pandora iOS/OS X users, then growing that audience, however partial, into a force of some reckoning, and then flipping the switch on at least one of the points listed above — adopting a Spotify-like approach and (finally) shifting its iTunes Store music ownership model over to something subscriber-based.