Is Apple’s Music Dominance Out of Tune?

By James Mowery

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It goes without saying: Apple is currently the most dominant force in music sales. There is only one place people go today if they want to buy music: iTunes. It almost sounds too good to be true. Maybe it will be, soon.

Competition is on the rise, and two companies are more than eager to compete: Amazon and Google. For some time we have known of these companies’ ambitions to take music to the cloud, and with one of them already doing so and another soon to follow, the question of whether Apple can compete must be presented.

Amazon

Amazon has struck first with the recent release of Amazon Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Cloud Drive acts as a storage locker for any type of file a user wants to upload while Cloud Player acts as an online music player — it streams uploaded music to a user’s computer or Android-powered device.

The service itself is fairly simple. By signing up, users receive 5GB of free storage. With that storage, they can upload music, movies, or whatever they want. But the most logical thing would be to upload music, as there are many other services that host other types of files (like DropBox).

Users download a file-upload utility for their computer, which is powered by Adobe Air, and it will scan your computer for music (it worked well with iTunes). Then you can go through your playlists and artists to upload the music you want. After the music is uploaded, rejoice, because your music is now in the cloud. Users can then navigate to the Amazon Cloud Player and stream music directly on their computer’s browser. The music is streamed at the same bit rate that it is uploaded, so users will enjoy high quality streaming.

But even more interesting is the support for Android. After downloading an update to the Amazon MP3 store on my Android phone, there was an option to connect to the Amazon Cloud Player. Once I entered my credentials, I was presented with all my music that I had uploaded. I navigated through my playlists and artists, and after selecting what I wanted, the music began streaming to my Droid X. Nice.

If 5GB of storage isn’t quite enough, Amazon is upping the ante by offering virtually unlimited storage, for a price. 20GB costs $20 per year, 50GB costs $50 per year, and so on, with up to a terabyte worth of storage for $1,000 per year (good luck with that). But users can purchase any album on Amazon’s MP3 store (some albums cost less than a dollar) and have access to 20GB of storage for free for the first year. That is a sweet deal.

Overall, the service works really well, and I hope it continues to expand.

Google

Google also has ambitious to bring music to the cloud. The details aren’t as concrete as I would like, but here is what we know so far according to what has been reported around the Web.

Google Music will act primarily as a music download and storage service. Users will be able to purchase music tracks for download — just as is done with iTunes — and will likely be compatible with various devices. There is no word if these files will have DRM, but I would hope not.

Users will also be able to upload and store music on Google’s servers. It will act as a “digital locker” for music files, one where users will presumably be able to stream those files to various devices, with Android integration being the focus.

And then there has also been talk about Google seeking the rights to allow users to stream entire songs at least once, which is similar to how Lala, an online music streaming service acquired by Apple, worked.

There has been no word on whether or not Google will be providing an all-you-can-eat music streaming service. From what has been discussed so far, it doesn’t seem like this is Google’s intention. But the intention to cause some disruption to iTunes’ success is certainly there.

The Threat

The question is whether or not Amazon or Google will threaten Apple’s enormous lead in music sales. Well, it depends on two factors: the first is whether or not these services will be supported on iOS devices and the second is pricing.

Amazon Cloud Player is available for Android, but not iOS. Why it isn’t supported on iOS is not currently known. It could be because Apple blocked it, because Amazon is still working on getting the service live for iOS, or because Amazon has no intention on putting the service on iOS. The first two scenarios are more likely. Amazon already offers e-books on iOS, so why not offer its music services?

However, if Amazon and Google can’t find a way to break into Apple’s ecosystem, the likelihood of either service achieving success is severely hampered from the start. Apple’s iPod, alone, is the most popular music player available. So if you can’t create a service that integrates with the iPod Touch/iPhone, there is little hope in the long term. Good for Apple, not so good for competition.

The other factor is pricing. Apple currently offers DRM-free music at $1.29 per song (for the newest songs). Amazon offers similar pricing. But Google Music’s pricing is not know yet. Could we see cheaper pricing? I’m not sure.

I would like to see a service that offers 10-cent songs for streaming only and then allows you to pay the rest of the difference for a download version, similar to how it was done with Lala. But as was mentioned before, Google is likely to offer something in the traditional form of a buy-to-own model.

Now, assuming that Apple has plans on announcing a digital “music locker” like Amazon and Google in the near future, there might not be much, if any incentive to jump ship to the competition. After all, if a user already purchases music from iTunes — particularly if that user owns an iOS-enabled device — what is the point in leaving? There isn’t.

In the end, what I believe will happen is that people who own Android devices might be inclined to take a look at Amazon and Google’s offerings. If they like it and are willing to open their wallets, which we know has been difficult, they might offer some serious competition to iTunes. Yet if Apple opens up their service to other devices and this “music locker” service becomes a reality (which would be interesting, to say the least), it might be over before it even started.

About James Mowery
James Mowery is a passionate technology journalist, entrepreneur, and Apple enthusiast who has written for various top-tier publications like Mashable, Techi, and CMSWire. Follow him on Twitter: @JMowery.

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