A Utopian Musical Future One Step Closer?

For nearly as long as the iPod's existed, I've written about where that device may one day take us--with the ultimate destination being All Music, All the Time, Everywhere. In short, the world's accumulated musical musings pluckable from the Ether. We're a step closer now that Apple has approved the Spotify app for the iPhone and iPod touch.

For those who've never heard of Spotify, it's Sweden's equivalent to Rhapsody or Napster--a music subscription service that lets subscribers stream anything from Spotify's extensive music library to a computer and, soon, an iPhone or iPod touch for £9.99 a month. The service is currently unavailable in any form in the U.S.

However, Rhapsody--a U.S. based subscription music service--is. And its owners, RealNetworks, have submitted an iPhone app to Apple and hope to be greeted with the same open arms as Spotify. Given that Apple has granted Spotify access, it seems it would be difficult for it to then bar Rhapsody, particularly when the FCC is asking questions about why certain apps are being given the stink eye by Apple's app reviewers.

Opinions of music in the Ether find voice at each extreme--from "God intended us to own every smidgeon of music we play!" to "This will totally put iTunes out of business!" And, of course, the truth likely lies somewhere between.

There exists a way to access your iTunes library from your iPhone or iPod touch in the form of the Simplify Media app and server application. It's a great $4 solution for streaming the content you own to one of these devices. But the limitation is that you can stream only the unprotected content you own. With Spotify (and, perhaps Rhapsody, if the app is approved) you have access to everything the service offers. In the case of Rhapsody, that's some 8 million tracks available almost whenever you want them.

Nice, but not quite there. The Rhapsody app (should it see the light of day) will require a Rhapsody-To-Go subscription that weighs in at $15 a month. Normally this flavor of subscription lets you download Rhapsody tracks to your computer (a Windows PC) and transfer them to your compatible music player (the iPod and iPhone are not such compatible devices). In the case of version 1.0 of the iPhone application, this kind of transfer is not supported. Rather, the app streams Rhapsody content to the iPhone or iPod touch when you have a Wi-Fi, 3G or EDGE connection (Wi-Fi only in the case of the iPod touch).

RealNetworks suggests that a future version of the app will support track transfer. (Spotify offers that kind of transfer with its app right now.) If Rhapsody's going to charge for On-The-Go service, it should provide exactly that and that means track transfer. If streaming is all it will be able to provide when the app is first released, charge $13 for the Rhapsody Unlimited plan, which currently provides streaming only.

Once transfer does become available, the Ether adventure demands direct download to the iPhone or iPod touch rather than a tethered transfer. Instant access just about anywhere is terrific when you're connected to a network, but there must be a time-shifting component for when you aren't. Should you be somewhere that you can't access Rhapsody's service (on a plane that doesn't provide Wi-Fi or on a trip where Rhapsody's not available, for example) a library-in-the-cloud is useless.

But once you make direct downloading available from a subscription service, you hit the iTunes wall. How likely is it that Apple will allow Rhapsody subscribers to download any of Rhapsody's 8 million tracks directly to an iPhone or iPod touch? If ever there were an understandable "competes with existing features" objection, this is it.

But, at the same time, will the FCC accept an answer along the lines of "this app would compete directly with a service that generates significant amounts of money for our company"? Apple has been able to justify control over the App Store because it needs to be sure that apps written for the iPhone and iPod touch work properly with those devices and the carriers. You can't make that argument about music files. They're compatible, period. Once the Rhapsody app is in, Apple will have to accept that on some level it competes with the iTunes Store.

Much as I like Rhapsody and Napster, I understand that I'm in a small group of people who use them. Given that, Apple has very little to worry about at the moment. But make Rhapsody available on an iPhone and iPod touch and you have the potential to expand its subscriber base significantly. And then things get interesting. If Apple can't reject these apps because of concerns over FCC scrutiny and those apps do deliver on the promise of music in the Ether, where does Apple turn?

My hope is in a direction that makes all of us happier music consumers.

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