Apple released a beta version of the iTunes Match feature of its iCloud service to developers today, unveiling new details about how the service will work in the process.
Most importantly, it seems the service will in fact allow users to stream music from the iCloud music locker to their various Apple devices, something that was not made clear in the original announcement in June.
iTunes Match again is the "scan and match" feature of the iCloud service. Rather than asking users to upload each music file individually (such as what Amazon, mSpot and Google all require with their locker services), iCloud simply will scan users' hard drives to find music files and match them against a server in the cloud, both those purchased from iTunes and otherwise. For $25 a year, the iTunes Match feature will let users stream an authorized copy of non-iTunes files from the Apple servers, regardless of where that file originally came from (CD ripping, P2P services, etc). And if the song is not in the iTunes library, users can then upload the track for later access.
The question mark until now has been how exactly users would access that stored music. When iCloud was first unveiled, it seemed like Apple was going to require that users download copies of each track to whichever device they wanted to play it on. With today's beta, it's now clear that users can just stream the file over the Internet if they want. Downloading will still be an option.
Why reveal this detail now? Most likely it's because Apple did not yet have the licensing locked up to allow for streaming output. Or, Apple could have just been playing coy so that it could get a nice press hit when the new details were announced at the time the service when live. Who knows?
The important part is that Apple has a streaming music construct in place. The model today may be that of a music locker. But really it's just a small matter of semantics and business model before Apple could offer a full subscription music service should it choose to do so. Digital locker services are considered a gateway to eventually offering an all-you-can-eat streaming service with a monthly fee.
Once users are accustomed to streaming the music they own, they may become more open to streaming music they don't. Apple to date has resisted "renting" music, but has never shut the door on the model completely.
For a video walkthrough of how the iTunes Match service works, check out these videos from Insanely Great Mac below: