iRadio: Apple could do streaming really well, but they don't have to do it at all

The rumors of an Apple iRadio music streaming service just won't go away. With WWDC just around the corner, many think that we may see something announced in San Francisco—in the very same room Google recently announced All Access. Apple could knock it out of the park if they entered this space, and I'm sure a lot of us would love to see just such an Apple branded service. But a couple of questions still present themselves. Does Apple really need to do music streaming, and what form could it take if they do?

Does Apple need to do a music streaming service?

The tl;dr version is; no. Apple doesn't need to do anything. Should, or even would, they is a better question. Apple reinvented the way we listen to music, making digital tracks work for record labels and consumers alike. For many, the iPod and iTunes were their first foray into Apple products. That's exactly where I began 9 years ago. The iPod brought with it the iTunes Store, and in the present day digital downloads have almost completely replaced the sale of physical media. And still, to this day, the largest source of digital downloads is the iTunes Store.

The iTunes Store is well established and does good business for Apple. It's also easy to understand. You give them money, they give you music. It comes with a sense of ownership. Apple currently offers iTunes in the Cloud, which lets you re-download previously purchased music, and iTunes Match, which lets you upload your local music to an iCloud locker and then re-download (but not really stream it) from any of your devices. In both cases, it's music you've already bought or acquired, Apple's just helping you access it. A streaming service, one with a subscription, is something else entirely.

Competitors who offer streaming also have music stores, like Google for example, but none are anywhere close to as established as iTunes. Google was late to the music store party, and has since thrown a streaming service on top of this. But, it's limited to the U.S. only—officially.

The leading streaming services have been designed to be that from the ground up. iTunes was built to sell music. Apple runs iTunes at just above break even, which granted at that scale is a lot of money, but they're not risk-adverse to obsoleting it. Their goal is to sell hardware. Music just encourages people to buy more hardware. Would subscription be even better at that?

What could Apple do with a music streaming service?

Apple being Apple, I can't believe they would move into the market simply offering the same as the competition. They've achieved their success by offering simpler, easier, and quite often, better.

The rumors point to some sort of iRadio service, and I think that would be a better place to start. Spotify and Google have radio features slapped on top of search systems for tracks, artists and albums. You find something you like, and you start a radio station based on that. Apple could do it better.

Over the years, customers have bought a ton of music from the iTunes Store, all of which Apple has the records of. They already use it for Genius Recommendations and Mixes. So, in theory, they could offer up a similar recommendation service that captures what you like to listen to. Twitter #music is a good example, and Apple could sit perfectly in the middle between Twitter and Spotify. Use all the iTunes information they already have, send you a radio stream of music they think you'll like, with an instant link to the iTunes Store to purchase the track, see more by the artist and so on.

Integration is something key to consider too, since a lot of this music would be listened to on mobile devices. If it needs to be a separate app, then it isn't done right. Apple already has a music app on iOS devices, so for something that they want their customers to adopt, it would need to be integrated into what they already have. And that could work, I'd be quite happy to open up the Music app on my iPhone and have the choice to listen to something new alongside my existing collection.

At the moment I live in Spotify and Twitter #music, but that's two additional apps on top of the stock music player. If Apple could bring all that under one roof, similar to how Google is trying to play it with their mobile apps and All Access, it could be a hit.

What's on your stream?

So, there's a few of my thoughts on the subject. I rely heavily on streaming services for my music, but I rely on the recommendation and discovery aspects even more. It's a competitive market, but what say you guys; are you pulling for an Apple music streaming service? What form would you most like it to take, and would you switch from an existing service if Apple helped you keep all your music in one place?

Richard Devine

Editor at iMore, part time racing driver, full time British guy. Follow him on Twitter and Google+

  • I would love to subscribe to itunes match, or even a streaming service if Apple provides one. But there is no cross platform compatibility. Even though all i have at home are macs and I use iTunes to buy my music, I don't use an iPhone as my daily driver anymore, and even if I still do, I would like to know that if one day i decide switch to another mobile platform, that I can still use the same streaming services. iPhone is a great platform, but just not the platform for me sadly. Now, I use Google music to access my library. And if I want to buy music, I use iTunes (which is available in my country). For streaming needs, I use spotify. Sadly, Google's music store is not available in my country, thus the need for multiple services. And Google Music can be accessed on all platform, be it natively, or via a 3rd party app. (I have iOS, Android, BB10, and WP8 devices, so its great for me) If Apple can offer cross platform compatibility, i would sign up for it in a heartbeat. Or even release api for developers to make use of. But i don't think we'll see that happening anytime soon.
  • Alex_hong: I understand your point but not fully. The main target of Apple since the beginning has always been to target the market to move in to buying Apple products. They seem to have had this in their mind since they started the iPod generation of products, while different manufacturers have different stratergies of doing the same (Android focuses on new technology and low costs and Windows on simplisity). Apple has been gaining a huge profit with iTunes and sales of music. This is why it hosts one of the larget database of genuine music, and not to forget that many of the albums are made available for pre-order first on iTunes. This shows that the record holders trust the way Apple has restricted and helped reduce piracy. Why has Apple restricted the usability of Bluetooth to just pairing of devises or iOS functioning (unable to send music via WhatsApp etc. unlike Andriod and other platforms)? "I don't use an iPhone as my daily driver anymore, and even if I still do, It would like to know that if one day i decide switch to another mobile platform, that I can still use the same streaming services" - Apple's target is lost in the first place if they do this. Since you have moved on to another platform, Apple has no hold and cannot control it fully. Their major focus is on keeping the existing iOS users glued on to having an Apple product and enhancing their experience to stay with Apple. Obviously there will be people who feel that the services offered by other platforms are better and this will be the case with every manufacturer. So finally, a cross-platform app or service from Apple will not come, or not soon atleast. None of the Apps from Apple yet are cross-platform. Their business model does not focus on using the advantage of other platforms to outshine theirs. I could probably be the most smart or the biggest mistake they have made (Blackberry now realised that the BBM should be made available to other platforms now). Time will tell. A streaming service would be an added service to the product. I would probably use it, or I wouldnt. Strongly depends on the interface, the quality and music content (if it is linked to the iTunes, I think the last two will be addressed).
  • Yeah, I understand all your points. I started with an iPod years ago and got into the iTunes ecosystem. Then I switched exclusively to macs, and when the iPhone came about, I got it immediately when it was released in my country. I used iPhone as my daily driver for more than 3 years, and now I only have macs at home. Your explanation is precisely why I think we wont see cross platform compatibility, which why i said, "But i don't think we'll see that happening anytime soon." I can completely understand their approach to their products. But now, this approach is why I won't go back to an iPhone, get iTunes Match, or a radio service if there is one.
  • "Their goal is to sell hardware. Music just encourages people to buy more hardware. Would subscription be even better at that?" :)
  • I think its a nice service to have for music discovery, considering how genius has worked wonderfully for me for so long. Apple could provide one of the best streaming services, good for music discovery, which might in turn sell more songs. Personally i use spotify as a song discovery service, and if i find songs I like, I buy from iTunes, if Apple provided that service, i can see it generating more music sales as well. Since i think people still like to own copies of the songs, at least I do. Whether it will sell hardware, I'm really not sure about the masses, but it won't for me. It is a compelling service (itunes match), even without the streaming service, but its just not enough to convince me to switch back to my iPhone full time (apple already has me when it comes to computers, for now). There are more to a Smartphone OS than just music services, and as it is now, iOS just isn't working out for me, which in turns mean iTunes match is not working for me too. Then again, Apple's goal is to sell hardware, and since iTunes isn't exactly a cash cow. So they probably wont be too concern with selling the service or music, which is yet another reason it won't go cross-platform anytime in the near future imo. :( It all works to what they want, which is to sell hardware, and try and keep people in their ecosystem.
  • Awesome write up....covered all the OPs points & then some!!! Left me with nothing to reply to the OP with, now what do I do......................
  • I really hope iradio actually happens. I'm so tied into Apple's Ecco system with devices, apps, books, movies and music. I already pay for extra icloud space and iTunes Match so easily adding a pay streaming fee is fine by me to at least hear whole albums before I buy them. Apple already know my tastes and I want it to just work so I can delete Spotify, pandora etc.
  • I'm curious to know why you claim iTunes match doesn't offer real streaming? I use iTunes match to do precisely that. Sure, it caches a song as it comes down to my phone or laptop, but there's no download or local storage required. It seemingly behaves just like Rdio or Sony Music Unlimited.
  • Because it's music you already own? That doesn't constitute a streaming service.
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  • i think that's a terminology problem. You're right but the act is the same. People refer to them as the same act. Same as "downloading" If i buy a ebook off amazon and download it or i can download a file from dropbox, it's still downloading whether i own the content or not. I think most people use streaming interchangeably regardless of ownership to included the at of transferring a piece of media from one place to another with out actually transferring a file. That is i stream movies from my desktop hard drive to my tv through a wdtv player. Even if you go the Apple website, Airplay section, the product description of Airplay is "AirPlay lets you wirelessly STREAM what’s on your iOS device to your HDTV..." Apple isn't making a distinction in how it uses the term between your content and content you don't own. So i get what your saying but i think the term "stream" is used in more contexts than that.Thus match is not a service that streams radio but it does stream.
  • I have more than 3,000 CDs. The problem with music subscription services is that they only offer a small fraction of everything that has ever been released on CD. Listening rights to individual tracks or even entire albums can be revoked at any time. No one will ever be able to come into my home and tell me I can't listen to one or more tracks on any of my CDs. With that being said, I do subscribe to Rhapsody. I use it more as a music discovery service, however. If it's something I really like, I buy the CD.
  • Sure, I'm rooting for them. The problem I have, however is that the "radio" style of Pandora is just not as significant a proposition for me to ditch the "jukebox" style of Spotify. Of course, hindsight always proves 20/20, but I feel that so long as the service resembles Pandora, it will not be the truly "innovative" service you are hoping to see. If they could tap into the secret sauce of the now extinct Zune software, then they'd have me as a customer for life. Unlimited listens to anything, a beautiful interface to manage the music I purchased, and (differently from Zune) cross-platform support for just about everything. The answer is pretty simple, if you ask me, and it seems like they're only putting a toe in the water with a radio service. It's a nice start, but they need a jukebox if they want me to ditch what's become my alternative.
  • I would definitely try out whatever Apple does next. Currently, I listen to the Pandora "radio" and use Spotify on my Mac when I want the "jukebox." One iTunes app to do it could be a huge winner. Social media has not been Apple's strength (PING!) so we'll see what they can come up with.
  • "Apple reinvented the way we listen to music" - humm, no, it did not. Digital downloads did, and that revolution was well under way when Apple got on board. ITunes changed the way the music industry did business, that is a more correct assertion. Streaming services are nearly useless in most of the world, where 3G is expensive and not unlimited, ang 4G even more so. I have Rdio because its cross platform, i can listen on my iDevices while on wi-fi, or on my PC at work. Would an Apple service do that, and would it be better than Rdio in what respect?
  • Would digital downloads be anywhere what they are today without the combination of the iPod and iTunes? The Zune sure wasn't responsible...
  • No, not Zune, but mainly Napster and P2P clients. Those, and the wide availability of MP3 players from Rio, Creative, Cowon, Apple and many others, reinvented the way we listen to music. iTunes and the new Apple are a product of the revolution, not the cause. iTunes brought the revolution to the music industry by giving it a legit front - for better or worse - and the industry was never the same, but worldwide far more people got their music from other means than from iTunes.
  • Hmm... not sure about this.
  • Re: "...are you pulling for an Apple music streaming service?" No. I don't stream any music. The only thing I've streamed is Olympics coverage last year through the NBC app. Having said that, hey, I'm sure Apple could set up a streaming music service. If it could generate enough money for it to be worth the time and effort. And that's the whole point, isn't it? Apple won't bother to negotiate the contracts, architect, design, implement, test, iterate, re-test, iterate, re-test, roll out, support, and evolve a streaming music service unless they think it will be worth their while. As in generating $$$ billions in revenue and profit. If Apple figures they couldn't or shouldn't compete against the incumbents in the music streaming world, then they won't. There's already richness in 3rd party apps in that genre.
  • I haven't subscribed to a streaming service yet, and I have to admit that now I'm waiting to see what Apple does.