But while I think that Apple is definitely up to something, I'm not sure it's what folks think they are planning. Despite the rumors that Apple is working on a Pandora/Spotify killer, I have my doubts that that's the game plan. A first clue to me is that, at least in the US, anyone can stream online radio stations and pay a preset royalty and Apple never jumped on even this level, not on iOS. Second is that they that kind of streaming in iTunes on the Mac and buried it with the last version of iTunes. Mind you folks are saying that this is because users want more control etc. Thus the Spotify model is the game plan.
But I still don't buy it. Apple hasn't really been the one to play the 'killer' game or to compete in a market that is working just fine. They get into things that others are doing when they feel they can do it better. And really what 'better' is there in this market where Pandora, Spotify etc have covered all the major options for free v paid, control v free form and so on.
I think these talks etc are the end of the plan that started when Apple bought the web based service Lala.com.
I was a huge user of Lala back in the day. I thought it was a really cool service and when I heard that Apple was buying it, I was stoked. For those that never used the site it was a multi-facted system designed around the idea of accessing and sharing music. And it had a number of really cool features:
- One time full play of any song in the catalog
- Uploading the titles in your iTunes music library and having unlimited streaming access to any song from your library that was in their catalog
- Info pages about the artists including similar artist recommendations
- The ability to share your playlists with other members and to follow other members and see their playlists etc
- The ability to make instant playlists of items based on sampling a particular artist, genre, a mix of the similar artists linked to someone etc
- Buying web only access to songs for a dime each
- Links to buying songs from iTunes
All these things together created an awesome system that was a bit more than just turning on a web radio station and had more control over what you heard than preset channels created from a song, artist etc. And it was ad free.
But then just over 3 years ago, Apple bought Lala.com and shut down. At the time many folks, myself included, wondered why. I believed and still do, that Lala was an awesome set of features that needs to be in the iTunes music store to increase music discovery. Some of the features actually have turned up. The uploading and matching of a library file is a key tech behind iTunes Match. The Info pages are turning up in the store starting with major artists and hopefully working all the way to the self label folks. Even the 'similar artists' is starting to turn up. And the generally panned Ping was an attempt at the follow features. One that I think got dissed way more than it deserved. If anything I think it failed because it never made it to the indie folks that needed the PR and because the streaming features were missing. Features I think Apple is about to bring back. Those features are what I think these deals are about. They are the rights issues that have been hinted at and the reasons for why Apple is allegedly wanting different payment rates than Pandora etc pay. And, I think, are the reason behind the recent patent on offline payments.
So what do I think this new Lala might look like. Well I think that it could be a combination of streaming and downloading not unlike how iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud work, although I hope with a user option on whether something is streamed or downloaded to a device. Folks might get a one time full play on any song or a one time download and play offline on any song for free. Either by selecting the song directly, downloading a member playlist (yeah I think that old Ping system could and should return) or creating a sample mix of an artist, genre or those similar artists (the iTunes Essentials might be another source for playlists). iTunes Match members might get an upgrade of this to say 5 plays on a song. Any song that was purchased or Match'd would be limitless. That patent might come into play by allowing folks that are offline to purchase a song they sampled that they like right away so they can have limitless play from that moment. This way they don't forget to go buy it later and by upping how many plays folks get via iTunes Match it encourages sign ups which means more money for the labels (which might offset the money Apple allegedly doesn't want to pay as "iRadio" royalties since there would be a kind of double dip in the system) and adds more data to their Genius system to create better mixes etc.
While I have little interest in another Pandora since the original does me just fine, I welcome the return of Lala and Ping either alone or as new features to iTunes Match and rather hope my theory is more correct than not