iTunes Match and why streaming vs downloading won't matter

Apple released iTunes Match, their iCloud-powered music locker service, into beta yesterday and immediately -- and rightly -- it's been Zapruder-ed by every eyeball online, especially when it comes to whether it downloads music, streams it, or both. And confusion and conflation have followed.

Sure, technically there's a difference between downloading a song to your local iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, or Mac or Windows PC and playing, and streaming that song directly to your device from iCloud. But many downloads will start playing before they finish and most streams will cache locally to prevent hiccups due to the ever present irregularity of internet connections. The lines are blurry, and made even blurrier by the music industry who wants to nickel and dime Apple, and consumers, at every turn.

(It's fair to say that if the music industry acted 20 years ago the way they act now, CDs would have been licensed per-player. You want to play that CD you bought in your car and in your living room? Pay us again! You want to play it in your bedroom? PAY US!)

As it stands, Apple technologically and no doubt contractually doesn't want anyone to know or care about whether or not iTunes Match downloads or streams from iCloud. The same way Apple doesn't discuss things like RAM, my guess is they're not going to specify exact behavior for iTunes Match.

You'll hit "play", Apple will take care of managing the local/iCloud relationship. Just like they don't think my mom should have to worry about file systems on iPad, they probably don't think she should have to figure out download vs. stream. It should just work.

Once iTunes Match is stable and out of beta, no doubt every geek and their packet sniffer will pour over it, parsing out every nuance of the stream vs. download behavior, and keep us updated when Apple tweaks it and makes changes to it going forward.

Meanwhile my mom won't worry about whether or not she's synced the Lion King Musical soundtrack, or how many GBs she has left. She'll just hit play and listen.

(Or she would if they released the damn thing in Canada.)

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

iTunes Match and why streaming vs downloading won't matter


There are not blurry lines between streaming and progressive download. The lines are very clear.
For the end user, I should just work.

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Of course, the problem with not know if it is streaming or downloading, then if you don't have internet access, you may not have the music you thought you did. The other issue with pure streaming is that the carriers are all imposing download caps, so all that streaming could become and issue. I want to know if i'm streaming a song or if it's stored locally for these reasons.

That's where caching comes in. Does iTunes Match let you "pin" songs to stay on a device?
I ask because Google Music let's you choose.

Blurry lines between steam and download?? Really??
Stream uses protocols that adapt to available bandwidth and in the end you do not have the music available to you. If you want to listen again, you must stream again.
Download brings every bit of the file, no mater the bandwidth. In the end you have a file you can listen again and again, copy etc.
Dowload takes space, stream doesn't.
if you stream a 3MB file you will NOT use 3MB of your 3G contract, if you download it, you will.
There are dozens of very clear differences between stream and download, and it matters very much for everybody.

Wow, you sound somewhat techie, but the truth is these differences are only in your intentions, in your mind. File transfer protocols do adapt to network conditions, Netflix streaming caches the file locally, only to delete after it's done with it. Audio/video streaming could switch the source to adapt to a lower bandwidth, that is probably the only relevant difference here.

Actually the differences are much greater than that.
If you have 2MB free on your device you can stream your whole library, but you cannot download a single song.
If you download a song and put your device in airplane mode, you can listen to it again, if you stream you can't.
If you are streaming and your connection, 3G or wireless, is slowed, the streaming will adapt and you may not even notice. Download will just slow along with the connection and the audio will most likely stop.
I do not think this is just a tech matter, the difference is very discernible and it matters to users.

What you're doing here is confusing storing the file in a storage medium (or not doing it) with the actual network transfer.
If you want to give a meaning to downloading as "storing/keeping the data locally after the network connection is finished" and streaming as "not storing/keeping anything locally after the connection is finished", then you have a point, but as you can see it all really boils down to storage, downloading and streaming are exactly the same in terms of network transfer. You could then ask: will the streaming of this file leave a local copy of what was transfferred? if the answer is yes, then the difference is no more.

Well, it is not a question of wanting, download IS
"storing/keeping the data locally after the network connection is finished" and streaming is "not storing/keeping anything locally after the connection is finished". That is the very definition of downloading and streaming.
And no, download and streaming are completely different in terms of network transfer.
Streaming uses protocols like UDP that drop packets to compensate bandwidth problems. Download uses TCP, that does not drop packets. In the end, if you stream you cannot have a local copy simply because the protocol simply did not bring all bytes of the song. If you stream using TCP, first you need a lot of bandwidth, second you need a lot of caching, which introduces long delays at the start and "hickups" during the song.
Those concepts have been crystal clear for a long time now, do we really need to redefine them just because "Apple almighty" is doing it?

"if you stream a 3MB file you will NOT use 3MB of your 3G contract".
yes, you will.

No you won't, at least not necessarily.
Streaming protocols like UDP or RTSP drop packets to accomodate bandwidth, so not only packets are lost along the way, but streaming downgrades the quality of the audio in order to keep the stream coming.
So in the end, you did not receive all bytes of the song, specially if they are in 256k quality.

But if you don't know or don't care about the underlying technology (like 95% of the population), the line is blurry. The average consumer sees streaming as "renting" and downloading as "owning" right now. iCloud will hopefully change that perception. Streaming will eventually mean owning too.

This is just justification. We can't download everything we want to hear in a given day. Unless we leave a gb open and spend every evening erasing.

There is no difference in the beginning between download vs. Stream sure. The difference comes after you've finished playing the song. Is the song i just played still on my device? Will I now be able to play it offline? If It was downloaded then yes, if not it needs to be re-streamed. Using essentially twice the data for the same song.
I doubt apple will do either actually. I think they'll come up with their own "magic" way of doing it. Maybe setting aside a set amount of space, that will hold the last 20 songs played and once it hits 21 the song at the end of the list is deleted.

There will also be a hit to battery life if the user must stream the song every time they want to listen to it instead of downloading it or caching it for future use. I think being able to mark a song or album as available for offline use would be a nice Spotify.

Comments say it all : I was suspecting after the June announcement that iCloud was just another way for Apple to sell iOS devices with higher storage capacity to those amongst us who hadn't ripped their entire CD collection yet.
Now I'm confused, but if streaming (+caching) is available there will have to be some extra Itunes settings like 'make available offline' for those trips abroad.

Wait, iTunes match is a subscription service....does that mean to use this feature you have to pay the subscription fee?

Um, no. There is a huge difference between streaming and downloading:
1) Cost. With streaming, each play fetches remotely. With carriers introducing hard caps, streaming could easily cost more.
2) Network I/O. In addition to data caps, if the connection is streaming music, there is less headroom available for other network tasks.
3) Battery. With streaming, the radio is on the entire time, consuming power.
4) Latency. With streaming, network conditions could impact the quality of the listening.
5) Storage. With downloading, you need more space on your device.
Your mom may just hit play and listen, and then she'll wonder why her battery lasted only 4 hours that day, or why her bill is an extra $15 that month.
There is a difference, and it matters.

What about if I have an iPod Touch? That's a massive difference. There's no 3G on that. Not only that, but I listen to almost all of my music with my iPod in Airplane mode to conserve battery. Will that affect me at all?

I'm confused by all the confusion. Isn't iTunes Match just a way to legitimise your existing song library so that: A) Songs you didn't originally purchase from the iTunes Store now appear in your 'Purchases' list; for download or re-download at any stage. And B) Those songs in your library are able to be replaced with the legitimate iTunes version?
How/when those songs are transferred from Apple to your device should be exactly the same as the current process; i.e. whatever happens now when you buy something from the iTunes Store.
If the iTunes Store suddenly became free; would users really download/stream/whatever all their songs on demand--as they wanted to play them--instead of building and syncing their library (for the most part) and just occasionally pulling songs from the iTunes store to their device while on-the-go.
It just seems like everyone is looking at it like an online storage location when in reality Apple is giving us the right to legitimise non-iTunes music and re-download tracks whenever we want.
I should note that I'm not in the USA so aren't able to take part in the beta.

Dev - paragraph 2, sentence 1:
"Sure, technically there’s a difference between downloading a song to your local iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, or Mac or Windows PC and playing, and streaming that song directly to your device from iCloud."

I'm trying to view movies and YouTube videos on an iPad over a free wifi connection at a hospital. The IT staff here explained that, due to high medical records security, the wifi is configured to disallow ANY video streaming.
My question: if I buy or rent an iTunes movie or video, will it download and play, or will it try to stream and (therefore) NOT play here?

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