Why 2010 will be the year of music in the cloud

Imagine if you could access your entire music library from any computer, iPhone, iPad or any other cellphone — anywhere you want. That's the promise of cloud music storage, and it's an idea that's about to really take off.

Streaming music isn't new, nor is the "music locker" concept, but there have been exciting developments with cloud music recently. Lala.com offered an excellent experience, letting you listen to your own music and get exposed to new songs. The experience was so good it got the attention of Apple, who acquired Lala last year and is shutting it down at the end of the month. Why would Apple do such a thing? Probably because they want to offer Lala's services (or at least some of them) under the iTunes banner.

Today mSpot launches a private beta of a cloud music service of its own, this one aimed at smartphone users. It's not as complete an experience as Lala (there's no way to listen to songs you don't have), but it's made to stream to Android (and, later, BlackBerry) phones over 3G networks — a huge step in cloud music. That's miles ahead of MySpace Music and its rather cumbersome, ad-supported interface or Spotify, which has been limited in the U.S. due to copyright restrictions.

Hopefully mSpot's move will motivate Apple to accelerate its cloud-music plans, and the concept will get serious this year. Here's why that looks likely:


Apple's mystery data center

Apple is building a $1 billion data center in a 500,000 sq. foot building in North Carolina to house a massive server. What's the server for? Apple isn't saying. But cloud storage is a definite possibility. At the same time, Apple's letting Lala customers transfer their song credits to iTunes. Interesting.

If Apple adds the iTunes prestige to the Lala concept, it could be the best thing to happen to music since, well, iTunes. What is/was so cool about Lala? Preview an entire song instead of a random 30-second clip. Share your songs with friends, legally. Paying 10 cents once lets you stream a song as many times as you want, or you can download songs for around a dollar. Add an app into that mix, and you won't care if your iPad has only 16GB anymore.


What would cloud iTunes look like?

People might have been hesitant about storing their entire library with a no-name like Lala, but Apple has tons more clout. A new iTunes service could scan your computers and devices for all of your music files and perhaps even music videos, and then create a virtual playlist that you can access from any computer or internet-connected device. No, the server won't store a million copies of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." It will know that you've legally purchased the song and add it to your accessible online list. It will also be able to tell the difference between the Journey version or the cover that was featured on Glee.

Lala had worked out royalty and copyright arrangements with the recording industry, but unfortunately, those licenses aren't transferable to Apple. However, that might not be an issue. Apple, after all, was the company that pioneered getting deals done with record companies to sell online music. If Apple keeps the 10-cent streaming option, even more people will be more inclined to get their music legally, and the record companies just might be willing to let this play out.

Enhanced by the cloud, iTunes could at last become truly social. Currently, Apple's Genius scans your music library analyzing style and genre, then puts together a playlist of similar tunes and recommends new songs. With a Lala-powered approach, once you and your friends have your music stored online, Genius could look through their libraries too (assuming they permit it). Or, tell a friend about a song and they can preview the entire song once for free, stream for a nominal fee, or buy it. Lala currently allows this, plus it could sent you updates when a friend buys something new. It's Pandora with the power of iTunes.


mSpot: streaming here and now

mSpot is handling things a bit differently. Instead of selling you songs, they sell you storage. 2GB of storage on their cloud server is free, but then the fees kick in: 10GB for $3/month, or 20GB for $5/month. Not gonna break the bank, but it's more than free. It also detracts from one of the biggest advantages of cloud storage — practically infinite amounts of storage.

The service is specifically targeting mobile phone users. While the software works on PCs and Macs, mSpot offers an app for Android 2.1 users, with a BlackBerry app in the works. They also show you the lyrics of any song with one click, if they're available. Nice perk.

However, mSpot has one rather major weakness. To conserve storage space, the service compresses your music to 48kbs AAC+ files. That's a significant downgrade in quality from what you can purchase from iTunes, and it is definitely an audible problem. I guarantee: you will hear artifacts at that low bitrate. It's made worse since most users will be uploading songs that have already been data-compressed when initially encoded as MP3 or AAC files — compressing a music file twice could leave it sounding just horrible. Listening over a mobile phone speaker might be acceptable, but through earphones, the artifacts are quite noticeable. mSpot could be a contender, but they'll have to address this problem if they're to stand a chance against anything Apple comes up with (company reps did say they plan to introduce bit-rate controls at some point).


Converging in the cloud

There are many subscription-based music services. Online radio like Sirius-XM are one approach, and more customized options such as Pandora and Slacker, where you pick a few songs and their own geniuses/algorithms suggest other options. Most of these have tried and failed to create an elegant way to combine new music with music you already own. But Lala showed that cloud storage does this almost inherently. Apple would be wise to continue that legacy, lest upstarts like mSpot make it their own. Either way, it's going to be a big year for cloud music.