Now that we know what iCloud is, now the debate begins over what it means.
Taking a step back and addressing that answer within the grand scheme of the digital music landscape, the answer is simple-not much. That's not a dig on Apple or in any way a criticism of what the company just launched. It's just that today's keynote introduced services and concepts that span far beyond how we listen to or access music. The context of today's news certainly will impact the music industry -- just not directly or immediately.
"If hardware is the brain, the software is their soul," Steve Jobs said at the outset of the keynote. His mission: to remove the personal computer as the central hub of our digital lives. In the Apple ecosystem, the personal computer is now on equal terms as the iPhone, the iPad and to an extent the Apple TV. It's just another device connected to the real hub-the cloud. Apple's end goal of this is, of course, to get us to buy more Apple devices that connect to that cloud.
But in doing so, it's also popularizing the notion of cloud-based computing for the mainstream users, just like iTunes helped bring digital music to the mainstream. Music was an unlikely first-mover in the cloud space to begin with. Music has too much baggage related to copyright issues and music industry politics to be the tip of the cloud spear, compared to something more simple like personal photos.
So by retraining its user base to think differently about the notion of a file, or about how content is distributed between multiple devices, Apple with iCloud could eventually spark a whole new way of thinking about music in the digital age.
For most digital music services already out there, not much has changed. Other than the fact that iCloud just makes the already dominant iTunes even stronger, the Rhapsodys, MOGs, Spotifys and Napsters of the world have little to fear, as their biggest challenges reside outside of Apple's moves. In fact, iCloud may even prove beneficial for these services, as many users may make the leap from streaming music they own to streaming all music more quickly now.
The exception is Google and Amazon. They'd better work out their differences with the music industry and get the licenses needed to offer a similar scan-and-match locker that Apple just unveiled because at $25 a year for 20,000 songs, with no uploading required, it's going to be difficult for either company to offer a compelling reason not to just continue using iTunes.
But beyond popularizing the notion of cloud music, iCloud offers no innovation in terms of music discovery, sharing, recommendations and so on. These are the kind of innovations that will get more people into the digital music marketplace, not just making it easier to access the same song on multiple devices.
On the bright side, Apple & Co. dropped several hints at how the iCloud may address all this, someday. For instance, a good part of the keynote focused on how Apple is integrating Twitter into iOS. So when users download a new app, users can link it to Twitter for automatic sharing of things like photos, or location and so on. Sharing what music is being played via iTunes isn't a big stretch to make.
Also interesting is content portability. Apple showed off a feature in iBooks where readers can bookmark where they left off reading a book on one device, and then continue reading in that same place when opening the book on a different device. No reason that couldn't be done with an album.
These and the other iOS upgrades unveiled today won't be available until this fall, so the speculation has already begun that the next iPhone may be launched by then as well. Maybe at that time Apple will have worked out whatever licensing or technology issues may be hindering those features today.
Who know? But what is clear is that today was not the leap many expected. It was just a step. And many more will follow.