iCloud Cuckoo Land*

iTunes
As regular readers will know, I’m a frustrated iTunes user. So what should I make of Apple’s announcements yesterday – in particular those associated with iCloud?
I tend to still buy quite a lot of music on CD, if for no other reason than you get nice album covers and booklets to look at. It’s certainly true that as soon as the plastic has come off the CD case (slowly because the tabs never work, even though cigarette manufacturers always seem to manage this quite well having long ago worked out that it was bad for business if their customers couldn’t reach their cravings quickly and effectively), the disc goes straight into a PC and is unlikely ever to be played in a CD player again**.
So putting aside the fact that like Google Music Beta, iCloud is not going to be available to UK users in a hurry, what is one to make of Apple’s $25 a year service, iTunes Match?
Let me just return to that CD-ripping fun I have.
The CD goes in, and more often than not, Apple/GraceNote manages to identify the track titles and into the library go the files. There then comes the small matter of the album artwork. I can’t tell you how many times Apple’s iTunes fails at this point – even with quite big-selling material. Now it might be that some of my musical tastes are a little off-the-wall, but the bigger problem tends to be that some finer point of the track titles/album artist/artist/genre doesn’t quite match up with what Apple thinks that collection should be. So even though the same album is available to download in the iTunes store where it comes with album art, iTunes fails to match it up.
The is fixable by using a Google Image search, or perhaps visiting Amazon, and getting a nice decent-ish resolution version of the album art. I note that forward thinking magazines like Word and Songlines even supply those images for their cover CDs on their websites (sadly BBC Music magazine doesn’t for copyright reasons which is a shame).
Anyway, I can manually add the artwork, even though I’m reasonably sure that it’s less economical this way, with the artwork seemingly copied into each track rather than a single image being associated with the whole album as iTunes does when it does manage to find one.
All this is a long way around of saying that since iTunes fails quite dismally at matching album art with CDs it knows about already, I’m really not sure how well iTunes Match is going to work when it comes to matching up tracks that you’ve imported into your library (from whatever source) with iTunes’ own database.
This is the big sell of iCloud: if you’ve got a fairly ropey 128k version of a song in your library, iTunes Match will replace it – in the cloud – with a nice shiny 256k version of the same. In other words, Apple is offering to clean and upgrade your library – assuming it can identify the tracks in the first place.
Unlike Google, Apple is able to make its cloud service much more economical to run by not having to store hundreds of thousands of duplicate tracks of something popular. Instead it can effectively offer hundreds of thousands of account holders access to a single copy of a given track if it has detected it in your library. We all use the same copy of Poker Face rather than Apple having to maintain thousands or even millions of copies on its servers.
I guess that we’ll have to wait and see to find out how successful Apple really is in matching these things up when it launches, although since I’m not in a rush to buy more Apple products, and streaming my collection doesn’t seem to be on the cards, I’m not clear that this offers much to me.
But I wonder how arcane remixes or live versions are going to match-up. It’s not for nothing that a whole sub-industry of add-on products exists to help tidy up iTunes libraries.
Google Music looks more useful, although I’m still faced with an enormous initial upload to get my collection into the cloud in the first place. My iPod tells me I currently have 13,462 “songs”*** on it. That’s within the 20,000 Google will let you upload free in the first instance. Quite how they’ll charge beyond the beta period is unclear at the moment however.
Finally, of the big players, there’s Amazon Cloud Drive. Again, it’s not available in the UK. It’s effectively just a hard-disk in the sky, although it does allow streaming. But the cost could be considerable. I’d fall into the $200 a year bracket with my music library. Not insignificant. For a couple of years’ fees I could buy a NAS and some hard-drives, connect the thing to the internet and build my own streaming option. Indeed, if I spent some time playing with code, I think I’m already in a position to do this.
At the moment, it’s all academic, as none of these services are available in the UK****. But none of them initially appear perfect.
*Sorry – I just liked that title, even if it is a little unfair.
**Unless such time comes that I need to re-rip my collection.
***Some of those “songs” are complete symphonies, but there you go.
****No doubt there’s some small service that is availble to UK users that I’ve not mentioned here. But the problem is that if I’m going to the trouble of uploading my entire music library, I need to be sure that it’s a company that’s going to be around a while.

3 Comments

  1. I’ve been using Google Music Beta for a few weeks. I signed up for the beta while I was physically in the USA (though – a tip to the wise – it’s just as easy to do by firing up an Amazon EC2 instance and proxying through that). Getting the Google Music APK (for Android) is easy enough.
    It’s okay, ish. Streaming does “just work” from my mobile, but heaven knows what it’s doing to my data tarriff. The uploader seems fairly slow and doesn’t work on my old 10.4 OSX Apple MacMini that holds my music collection. Waiting for the music player to suck down the music I want to take with me requires thinking ahead, and it’s slow, even on wifi. And it’s all just a bit of faff.
    http://www.mp3tunes.com/ is available in the UK – it’s not “legal”, but then, nor’s Amazon or Google’s service in that strict sense. Its Android app crashes a lot. Its uploader is hideous. It’s run by Michael Robertson who has a track record for doing stuff that antagonises the content owners. But it does work. (I’d rather use my own storage, though).
    After a bit of playing with these services, I’ve bitten the bullet and paid my £9.99 to Spotify. It doesn’t have everything I want, but it works so flawlessly, it’s a good replacement for any cloud service. It recently added both local playback and wifi-synch for Android phones; and that, alone, means I never need run iTunes on my aging Mac again.

  2. Oh, and PS – all my music is already backed up on “the cloud”, in an Amazon S3 drive. I can therefore stream from it when I’m at work or at home: the only hole in that plan is the mobile streaming, which is possible via http://www.lysesoft.com/products/s3anywhere/ but is rather a major faff to achieve.
    The initial upload is/was the killer, though. (I used Jungledisk to drip-upload that over a few weeks). If only I had a relatively uncontended 100MB connection to the internet somewhere…

  3. Thanks for the comments. I’ve managed to add myself to Google invite list, but will have to wait until they roll out the service to me.
    In the meantime, it’s the horrific idea of uploading gigabytes of data in the initial instance that I find most off-putting.
    The reality is that I could probably just serve the music to myself from my own NAS given the time and inclination.
    I can’t forsee myself seriously attempting to stream any music when I’m outside a wifi zone. Irrespective of data costs, I just know the experience will be terrible. (The lack of reliable 3G or even 4G is probably the biggest flaw to Google’s Chromebook if initial reviews are to be believed, but that’s for another piece another day).
    Still interesting to hear your experiences.
    I’ll ditch iTunes the day that somebody else produces a portable media player that has more than 160GB of space. There’s the odd tablet kicking around with 250GB but they’re too big. Cowan is the only other manufacturer I’m aware of to produce a truly portable 160GB player. But even that’s more significantly more expensive than Apple’s product and seemingly comes with software that’s even worse (OK – it’s probably not essential to use the included software).

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