We can’t help but have a mixed reaction to Apple’s announcement of its new cloud services. On the one hand, some of the services offer real (long overdue) benefits for consumers and copyright owners. One the other hand, as with all things Apple, the price is high, and we’re not talking about the $24.99 iMatch fee.
Let’s start with some of the good. For years the music industry has complained that it could not adjust its business models to "compete with free." Apple's new iCloud service – and iTunes Match – shows, once again, that it's completely possible to "compete with free" when you provide added value.
As we all now know, Google and Amazon have rolled out their own music-in-the-cloud services. But those services are bulky and slow upload times may discourage music fans. Apple's service will be different. Specifically, it will scan users' hard drives (allegedly in minutes) and offer access to Apple’s high-quality version of each song in a user’s library, no matter how one got the song (if Apple does not have access to a particular song, it will upload the user's own copy). As a practical matter, that means some users will now be able to “come in from the cold” and access lawful copies of music that they obtained illegally. For this, Apple will charge an annual $25 fee, and it has reportedly agreed to pay the labels $150 million in licensing fees. Fans now have additional access to their music (of a higher quality), the labels are getting paid, and maybe, just maybe, some of the profits will be passed on to the artists that made the music. This looks a lot like successfully competing with free to us.
But as with all things Apple, there’s a catch – and it’s an ironic one. The promise of cloud computing was that it would give users more flexibility than ever before. But Apple’s cloud services (which will allow users to store much more than just music) limit consumer options by locking users into Apple devices.
Over and over, Apple has affirmed its commitment to the idea that a manufacturer should be able to dictate how things can interoperate with a product at every layer – from the software, applications, and services that can be developed and sold, to the consumer's use of the device, to the other devices that can physically plug into it. The consequences of this approach have been all too clear. In its App store, for example, Apple has rejected several applications that competed with Apple's own offerings, including apps that allow users to synch their iPads with iTunes and to check multiple Gmail accounts at once. More broadly, Apple has been aggressively asserting the right to license accessories, like speakers and headphones, that work with its products. The result? Closed platforms and fewer choices.
Apple claims it needs to build a walled garden to "protect and improve" the user experience. From where we’re sitting, it looks like what Apple really wants is to control the user experience and re-set traditional expectations about what users can do with the products they buy.
If Apple truly cares about its customers, it should support their right to control their own devices – on the ground and in the cloud.