Cloud illusions

As tech-savvy, good-looking Current readers, you no doubt expected Steve Jobs to unveil the iPhone’s fourth iteration at the June 4 Worldwide Developers Conference. And he did. But some technofiles, this author included, wondered if Jobs would reveal any developments regarding Apple’s 2009 purchase of and the rumored iTunes “in the cloud.” The closest Jobs came to discussing the matter was in his answer to an inquiry at The Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital Conference,” held June 1 (the day after shut down, not coincidentally).

“There’s a lot of things we’re working on,” he said, according to a June 4 Washington Post article. And so Apple’s next bullet, which may have the power to end media ownership as we know it, remains in the chamber. It all comes back to “the cloud.”

Tech lovers have been talking about running various programs “in the cloud” or “cloud-computing” for years now. The definition of the term is somewhat abstract. In short, cloud computing describes using the internet to run software normally reserved for your hard drive some other server. Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, which allows you to store data on a server accessible from any internet-enabled computer, is one common example.

Lala débuted a cloud-based service in 2008, in which the mothersite scanned users’ hard drives, making what the New York Times labeled a “digital locker” of music. This locker was accessible from any computer with an internet connection. Users could also purchase more songs for their locker, at prices lower than iTunes, song for song.

According to the Washington Post, Apple purchased Lala after the latter had completed an iPhone version of its streaming service, but before it released it to the public. Just in time, you might say, because Lala’s service would have made loading an iPhone’s hard drive with mp3 files look like installing wheels on a boat.

So Apple is now in possession of the leading cloud-based music service, which it shut down on May 31. Apple may be planning to never reboot the service, the way a car company might buy an alternative-energy patent to bury it. But Apple likes making money, so a cloud-based iTunes that circumvents drive-space constraints seems inevitable. The release of such a service would change what it means to “have” media for a number of reasons. First, having a music library in the cloud would equal access to nearly any song recorded by anyone, assuming you’re willing to pay. Sure, there would be no online equivalent of your fan-recorded Dave Matthews Band bootlegs, but you’d suddenly have way more drive space freed up for DMB jams. And iPhone owners would have all of popular music in their pockets. Secondly, media packaging could become obsolete. Apple has already popularized the purchase of digital music, but now you wouldn’t even need to store it on your hard drive. Between this and Netflix’s super easy instant-stream option, owning a physical media “collection,” with the expense, effort, and plastic packaging it entails, seems more like a chore of the bored elite environmentally uncouth with each passing day.

But this cloud is not without a doo-doo-stained lining. In July of last year, the New York Times reported that went into users’ Kindles to remove books in violation of copyright law. The titles? Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell. Made aware of the irony, Amazon stated they used poor judgment and would change “our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices.”

Farhad Manjoo, of Slate, called the move “the future of book banning.” In that case, Amazon remotely altered the contents of users’ e-Readers at will, a power that will inevitably be in Apple’s possession as well. It’s difficult to make grounded accusations about Apple’s intentions. No one even knows how their cloud-based iTunes would function. But if they married Lala’s delivery model with an average terms-of-service agreement, one thing would be certain: users would no longer pay to “own” music. Instead, they would pay for the “service” of accessing it. I challenge you to find a service agreement that doesn’t append a caveat that the seller can discontinue service at any time for any reason. If you do, I’ll buy you a disc from Hogwild.

In other words, the difference between buying a record from a local vendor and online — aside from price and packaging — is the right to not have your CD taken out of your house by the store you bought it from. Apple has already proven they’ll send police to confiscate a blogger’s computer equipment: how much easier will it be for them to remotely press the delete key? •