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“The labels have been unwilling to allow a scan-and-match system in the past, partly because they know that much of the music people possess might have been stolen, or at the very least copied from legally purchased CDs, and thus hard to verify as having been bought.”
——Walt Mossberg
iCLOUD ON THE HORIZON?
As Apple Closes EMI, Mossberg Rates the Competition From Amazon and Google
Apple has just nailed down a licensing deal with EMI as it closes in on locking in the Big Four for a fully licensed cloud-music service, sources with knowledge of the talks told CNET. A deal is already in place with Warner Music, the same news source reported last month—and that counts as a major score considering WMG’s chronic unwillingness to play in other digital sandboxes, notably including VEVO.

Sony Music and UMG are said to be close to completing their deals, which could be wrapped up as early as next week, the sources said. That means Apple could launch the service—or at least break out the pertinent details—at next month’s Worldwide Developers Conference. But only Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and Eddy Cue know for sure.

Apple’s iCloud (or whatever they choose to call it) will launch behind Amazon's Cloud Player and Google's Music Beta, but, thanks to the cooperation of the major labels, the Cupertino colossus will be able to offer a range of features that its rivals can’t—nor has it generated any ill will by defying the Big Four. So much for the majors’ longstanding desire to level the playing field, at least for now.

The news hit late yesterday, just as the Wall Street Journal was posting a review of the Google and Amazon cloud services by the paper’s influential tech columnist, Walt Mossberg.

“While the two services do have some differences, they are basically similar,” Mossberg writes. "Each works either through a Web browser or an app for Android devices. Amazon says it is working on compatibility with Apple's mobile devices, but Google says it has nothing to announce on that front. (You can use both through the Web browser on an iPad or iPhone, but they worked poorly on those devices in my tests.)

“Amazon's service is priced by the amount of storage you use. You get 5 gigabytes free, enough for over 1,000 songs, depending on the quality, length, and thus the size of your song files. If you buy an album from Amazon's digital music store, you get bumped up to 20 GB free of charge for a year. In addition, any music purchased, album or track, from Amazon's digital service do not count against your storage allotment.  Other plans are available, ranging from $20 a year for 20 GB to $100 a year for 100 GB. Google lets you store up to 20,000 songs for the beta version, and says it will be free for ‘a limited time.’

“I uploaded the same 1,400 or so songs to each service, and was able to play them back just fine on the major Web browsers on multiple Windows and Mac computers, and on an Android phone and tablet. Each imports music using a small computer program you download. In my case, with a limited test collection and an unusually fast Internet connection, the upload process took several hours.

“Google has a few nice features—it has a clever instant playlist creator, and, when uploading, it tries to prioritize your most played songs. But, overall, I preferred the Amazon player, mainly because it gives you much more control over exactly what you want to upload or download, down to the individual song. Google will upload only large collections, such as your iTunes library or main music folder. If you want to upload only certain songs, you have to create a folder containing only those songs. If you want to download only certain songs on your Android device, you must first make a playlist of those songs.

“Also, the Amazon service found all my iTunes playlists, but the Google service omitted some. In addition, Amazon sells digital music and can deliver it right to your Cloud Player. Google doesn't sell music. Neither service will upload or play back copy-protected music.

“These new music lockers provide a new option for digital music lovers, and if the tech and music industries can ever agree, even better options could be ahead,” Mossberg concludes.

Elsewhere in the piece, he explains that Apple’s locker service is believed to be one in which no uploading is required “It's sometimes called ‘scan and match,’” he notes. “Under this approach, the music service would first buy from the labels the rights to stream a huge catalog of music, and, with your permission, scan your computer to see which of those songs are present. Then, it would simply assign you the rights to stream those songs you already have via multiple devices of your choice, and even preserve your playlists of those songs.

“This is believed to be the system Google was trying to launch until it couldn't negotiate the rights with the labels on terms the parties would accept…Such an approach offers benefits beyond just the avoidance of painful uploading. With the proper rights, users could share music with others, or sample new music. There could be a variety of pricing and advertising models. But the music labels have been unwilling to allow this system in the past, partly because they know that much of the music people possess might have been stolen, or at the very least copied from legally purchased CDs, and thus hard to verify as having been bought.”

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