Why We're Not Worried About Apple Music

It’s a week or so since Apple announced their new streaming music service called, err, Music. As expected it’s an all-you-can-eat music service priced at $9.99 per user in the USA. No UK price has yet been announced but if previous history is any guide Apple will just to pounds for dollars, £9.99 over here.

As a CD ripping service we’ll be blown out of the water, right?
Have we been Uber-ed by Apple?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

First, history is on our side. Over the last twelve years all sorts of technology has assailed us, each one (I have been told) is defined to consign CD ripping to the dustbin of history. Remember Limewire, the MP3 sharing system? Pirate Bay? AllofMP3? Each service supposedly offered ways of accessing your music in digital format.

Then in Europe we were treated to Spotify. Today that’s the music streaming service most people think of, and many people use it. Even among my clients less than 50% actually pay for it, so are interrupted by adverts, which puts them off. Rumours persist that Spotify will pull its free layer - it still pays royalties even if the listener isn’t a paying subscriber, and if you’ve been a user for 12, 24 or 36 months and haven’t opted to pay up, you’re not likely to - ever.

Apple may have learnt from all those who went before, their offer will be better, but not “killer”.

Second, it’s a cloud based streaming service. Is that a problem I hear you ask. Well not for Dropbox, Evernote, Microsoft, Amazon or other players but be honest - when it comes to the cloud Apple is dreadful. I’ve been an Apple user for over 25 years. I signed up for their internet service (after months of technical failures they “sold” it to AOL). I’ve been with .mac, with iCloud and iDrive. All have significant issues both at the “top” level and at the device level. iPhone to iPad to Mac synch services across Apple’s platform is horrible compared to Dropbox for example.

Suddenly, Apple is actually going to deliver a high capacity, high data content music streamer when it can’t synch my contacts?

A second feature under second, I don’t think users will love music streaming. Your music will comprise some pretty big files, sent from Cupertino across to your ISP then down a physical line (or your mobile phone line) to your PC or your phone handset. Yes, you get to pay for that with your data allowance. Prepare for eye watering bills. Wait for the complaints about breaks in service, streaming that cuts in and out, and ISPs bleating that they never signed up to be radio stations.

Third, artists and labels hate it. Already the music moguls and the small labels are laying into Apple. The payment to them is minuscule, Apple are offering a three month free trial during which no payment will be made for streamed music. Independent music industry figures are lining up to tell artists not to sign up for reasons that cover commercial and contract issues.

This leads to one of the biggest reasons why streaming falls down. The minute someone says “Have you heard that album?” and you find that artist / label isn’t on Apple Music so relevance of the system fails. Believe me, there’s a lot of music, both old and new, that won’t be on the Apple platform. If you need to sign up with Spotify and Apple and A N Other then the cost rockets and the bother of finding a track you want increases exponentially. Nobody wants that.

Fourth, as I’m very fond of saying, metadata matters. That’s essentially the key to cataloguing music and doing so in a way that enables users to find what they’re looking for. Let me assure you CDDB (the database service that Apple use for iTunes) is riddled with inconsistencies. This is much more of an issue on the classical side but it leads into the issue that people lose faith in a music service if they can’t find what they want to listen to. With CDDB as untidy as it is that is a problem.
Still with me? Good, here’s number five - social. Apple’s launch presentation majored on the social element of their system, a feature which will allow performers to be in touch with their fans. My little heart sinks. How many issues will this create. I’ll toss in some of my favourites - Karajan, DuPre, not to mention Beethoven and Mozart. All passed away.

Does Apple really think top name artists, even those still with a pulse, are going to take time out from their hedonistic lifestyles to post genuine content to their fans via Music? Do you even think their record making machines will let them? No, they will be “helped” by the social media gurus hired by the labels, treating fans to the typical synthetic slush they churn out now for Facebook and Twitter.

Remember that nice gesture by U2 a few months ago? They made their new album freely available via iTunes, and created a tsunami of complaints as everyone found the new tracks forced into their iPods, iPhones and computers. Stand by for more of the same.

Given my tirade of negativity is it all bad news for Apple Music? No, of course not. The strongest feature of any streaming service is the opportunity it gives you to discover, enjoy (and then probably forget) new music and new artists. Speaking as someone who predates The Beatles and The Stones, history shows there are few gems amid the dross. Commercial experience shows that forcing fans (and I speak from bitter experience) to buy a whole album when it contains only one or two decent tracks is counter productive. Artists who produce great albums are outnumbered by those who are either one hit wonders or whose albums hold one or two specks of gold. A streaming service can highlight the newcomers, let you enjoy their best music, then move on when you’re bored.

Over the world millions of people will use and enjoy Apple Music. But rest assured we’ll continue to be ripping CDs for a good few years to come.
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End of the iPod?

Could it really be? Is Apple going to kill the iPod? Well, that's what the rumours have been in parts of the Apple watching blogosphere.

The rationale is pretty much as this - Apple is used to growing revenues across its product line, iPod revenues are falling, so the merciless suits will kill the product. Well .. revenues may be falling but even at a massively reduced level the portable music line makes lots and lots of money for Apple. Today there is certainly considerable overlap between iPods, iPhones, iPads and Apple TV but I for one don't see them as competing, more as complementing items playing roles in the Apple home entertainment ecosphere.

At the same time there are rumours that Apple will refresh the Apple TV product and (maybe) deliver on a refreshed version of iTunes. I can't see it would make sense to drop the world's most popular, biggest selling, portable music player. It would leave a massive gap in the market ready for another supplier to enter. Having digested portable music what then would the next target be?

I can't really see Apple turning their back on the iPod. And I have high expectations for a better Apple TV product, very soon.
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iTunes & Sonos Reunited

I was asked by a long-standing podServe client to source and install a new computer system for his London home. One of the key features was that it had to store his music in a form that was available to a new Sonos system. Without the computer having to be switched on all the time.

The configuration we agreed on was largely Apple components. We're both Apple fans so we opted for a new iMac (with the 20 inch screen), connected to Apple's AirPort Extreme (the new version with N grade comms) and a Netgear modem. Data storage ended up being a LaCie ethernet connected hard drive. Installation was a two phase approach, I went in one afternoon to connect up my hardware, the audio visual suppliers went in the next day to do their stuff, mainly setting up the Sonos system.

Actually there was a wait of several weeks while BT supplied first a broadband connection to the clients door, then a week or two before the phone wiring was able to get the signal up to the top of the house where we needed it. Anyway, I did my bit and when I left the music was on the hard drive, the system was connected to the internet, iTunes played music and there was a wireless signal so my client and his wife could use their laptops. The following day the AV team went in.

I got a message to say that although the Apple / iTunes / Sonos mix worked fine when the AV guys were there, our client found the next day that Sonos had 'lost' its music. No sound, no customer satisfaction. I was aked if I'd go onsite with the AV company's technical man to see if we could resolve this. Three hours later we had everything working, but it was a fraught installation.

The first problem we had to overcome was the http address of the ethernet drive - how do you find it? Actually this was simple, using the software LaCie supplies called IPConfigurator. This is a free download from the support area of lacie.com (its also bundled on their discs I believe). This is a simple utility that when run scours your network and comes back with a list of addresses for any connected drives. perhaps I should say LaCie conncted drives, I haven't checked to see if IPConfigurator will find drives made by other companies.

Mr podServe is a happy man thinking we're almost there. Over to the AV expert to use the Sonos configration software to set up the sound system. At this point we have a problem getting the Sonos software on the Mac to accept the http address of the drive. Eventually we got it to accept our entry - if you're doing this remember you need to input not only the address but also the username and password. Even so it wasn't easy to get the Sonos unit to go to the drive and catalogue the music.

We battled with the Sonos wireless connection, no luck. We connected the nearest Sonos to the router via ethernet cable, still it wouldn't access the drive. We swapped Sonos units thinking that might be the issue, nothing worked. So my AV guru had the brainwave to connect the LaCie hard drive to the ethernet port on the Sonos unit, which was in turn connected to the router.

Bingo! It worked, Sonos found the drive and catalogued the music library. Then that information was propagated through the Sonos network. It seems they create their own little peer-to-peer network for this purpose, very clever. To round off the configuration I opened iTunes on the iMac and set about getting the music library to point to the relocated LaCie drive. I had thought this would be a tricky task but no, very straightforward. When done (the main problem was waiting the 10 minutes it took to complete the re-listing in iTunes) we had:-

- a functioning Sonos network
- Sonos Zone players happily accessing different music from different parts of the house
- iTunes playing music from its library.

All at the same time, all with a very quick pick up time from the hard drive. We switched the iMac on and off, same for the Sonos, just to check amnesia hadn't crept back in and we found it worked and continued to work. Job done, Mr podServe is a happy man, as is the hi-fi guru.

The configuration we finished with is a Netgear modem/router to which we connected the iMac, the AirPort Extreme and one Sonos controller. The LaCie ethernet drive is conncted to the Sonos controller, from which the iMac happily accesses it. There's sound and wireless thoughout a four storey brick and concrete house on the edge of the City.
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AAC 1 - MP3 0

Looking at the small print in the recent Apple / EMI announcment about DRM free music it seems that the music file of choice will be Apple's AAC, and not the previously universal MP3. Why?

Well, recently Microsoft got hit by a massive lawsuit alleging copyright infringement over the technical rights to the MP3 codec. Perhaps neither Apple nor EMI fancied being hit in the same way.

Maybe EMI saw this as another way of controlling the distribution of their tracks. Maybe the thinking was MP3 is synonymous with those evil file sharing pirates, so AAC could be 'safer' in that respect.

I originally thought this was a simple marketing ploy to enable Apple to market their products (ie iTunes Music Store tracks) to Zune and the users of other MP3 players. It's more than that, each MP3 manufacturer will come under pressure to release firmware updates to support AAC on their players. users will have to find the upgrade, download it, apply it to their machine - how many will just not bother and buy a new iPod instead?

At a sweep Apple and EMI may have changed the drift of digital music. Where once MP3 was seen as the universal standard that accolade could fall to AAC.
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Ripping Movies in iTunes?

So you can rip CDs, you can play CDs. You can download tracks from iTunes Music Store.

You can download movies from iTunes Music Store. You can play them in iTunes. So what's missing? Ripping DVDs.

We could be a step closer to the missing link in the entertainment puzzle, thanks to a recent ruling in America. Given Apple's great position with Apple TV, iTunes and video iPods surely ripping movies in iTunes is the logical next step.

This facility would unleash additional iPod, iMac and Apple TV sales. At podServe we have strong interest in this facility.

Watch this space. My money is on this happening in the next three months.
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Itunes Music Store Enhancements

Macrumors today annouces two significant extensions to the facilities offered by iTunes Music Store.

The first is an advice function - based on past purchases you can be alerted to the availabilty of new music by the same artist. It's a cute feature, I wonder how long it will be before we're told of similar music we would enjoy, much as Amazon does now with its 'other readers have purchased' at the same time.

The second has financial impact - the ability to 'complete my album'. Noticing you've bought one or two tracks you'll be prompted (and probably financially incented) to but the rest of the album. Not only does this make sound business sense but it would go some way to narrow the gap between a downloaded album and the low priced CD suppliers. I wonder if it's Apple or the labels who are biting the financial bullet on this one.

But ...

With a full download costing £7-99 a physical disc offers good value for money. If you'll forgive the plug for our own CD ripping service (http://www.podserve.co.uk), we can rip a CD for £1. I can source a CD in my High Street music store for as little as £5, putting the two together we can still offer a saving plus the client gets a physical CD he can enjoy anytime.

Final shameless plug - podServe also rips your CD at a higher quality than iTunes Music Store.
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