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What's the Holdup on iTunes Match?

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 4, 2011 5:00 AM PT

When Apple announced its new subscription music service iTunes Match in June, it vowed the offering would be online by the end of October. Well, Halloween has come and gone, and Apple fans still haven't seen the service. What's the holdup?

What's the Holdup on iTunes Match?

As usual, Apple's mum on the subject. It didn't respond to requests by MacNewsWorld for a comment on the topic. But there are several possible things that could be snagging the launch. One could be the Steve Jobs effect.

"Apple is still struggling with the loss of Steve Jobs," Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif., told MacNewsWorld.

"Steve was the guy who forced everybody to hit their dates," he continued, "so when you remove someone like that, surprise, surprise, they're missing dates.

"This is one more example of the new Apple is not the old Apple," he added.

Matching, Not Uploading

While Jobs' absence is no small loss, it might be a stretch to lay too much of the blame for Match's delayed appearance to him, argued another analyst.

"Apple has a history of pushing products back even when Jobs was CEO," Ross Rubin, an analyst with the NPD Group, told MacNewsWorld.

What could be a major snag for the service is ironing out the licensing agreements with rights holders to the content in the iTunes store.

Unlike music services provided by the likes of Amazon and Google, which act like online warehouses for your music, Match mostly uses the iTunes Store library to fill out your music cloud. It scans your iTunes library, using the acoustic matching technology Apple obtained when it acquired a company called Lala, and compares what it finds to the millions of songs in the iTunes store.

When it finds a match, it links the song to your Match account. That way, you don't have to worry about uploading your entire music library to Apple's cloud, as you have to do with Amazon and Google. You still may have to upload material in your library that's not in Apple's catalog or can't be matched by Lala, but for most folks that probably won't encompass a lot of music.

What's more, Apple will automatically upgrade the quality of your recordings to 256 kbps as part of the annual fee of US$25. In addition, not only can you stream music from Match to your Apple devices, but you can also download from your Match library to those devices, too.

Making Pirates Pay

"There's clearly a lot of licensing discussions that need to take place," observed NPD's Rubin. "Match is a pretty ambitious, cloud-based music initiative.

"Clearly, the more licenses they can line up, the more satisfying a proposition it can be for consumers who utilize the service," he added.

A concern raised when Match was announced was that it would be a honeypot for pirates. The thinking was that the service would allow online buccaneers to exchange shabby copies of pirated songs for high-quality commercial versions of them. That's largely gone by the boards now, according to Gartner's McGuire.

"The music label people that I've talked to say that's less of a concern to them with iTunes and Match because Apple has gone to them and struck agreements that share revenues with rights holders," he said.

He explained that if a Match subscriber has pirated music in their iTunes library, the rights holders feel they're getting compensated for it through their cut of the swashbuckler's Match fee.

"The challenge is that once you say you're going to work with rights holders, you have to negotiate with them," he said. "Those kinds of licensing discussions can sometimes get bogged down."

Getting It Right

It could be, too, that Apple, especially in light of the snafus that occurred when offering downloads of iOS 5, wants to make sure they get Match right the first time out the door.

"They want to create a strong satisfying user experience that matches the standard they've set for their hardware and software products," noted NPD's Rubin.

That becomes more difficult the further Apple wanders from its bread and butter: hardware.

"At the end of the day, Apple's a hardware company," contended Enderle. "Anything that drifts out of hardware, particularly services, they're going to struggle with more.

"Their hardware continues to be absolutely beautiful," he added. "Where they tend to screw up is where they move away from those core competencies."

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