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Switched On: Thunder in the cloud


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

With each passing day it becomes less of an insult to say someone's head is in the clouds, as more and more people begin to outright rely on web sites and applications like Facebook, Google Docs, Flickr, Farmville, YouTube and Hulu. Among these popular services are Slacker and Pandora, two internet radio services that have grown tremendously since becoming available as smartphone apps, and which have recently completed the three-screen trifecta by being offered on connected televisions. These services have always had plenty of online competition, including simulcast internet radio stations, streamed Sirius XM, and Rhapsody. But it appears as though the landscape of Internet music services in the US is preparing to accommodate two more game-changing newcomers from profoundly different backgrounds.

The first is a startup from Europe called Spotify, which has been winning fans across the continent in the five countries in which it is offered. Spotify's Open service represents something of a holy grail for on-demand music from the cloud: you can play any song in its catalog as often as you like for up to 20 hours per month for free, and share songs with your friends. The service gets high marks for its responsiveness. Becoming a premium Spotify member essentially turns the service into something more akin to Rhapsody, with no ads, better audio quality, and offline listening. Spotify has begun offering a private preview of its U.S. service to a lucky few, and is expected to be rolling out more broadly this year.

The Spotify model of giving away online access to music on demand was pursued by a US company in 2007, but was abandoned because the licensing terms from the labels would have been too expensive. This startup was called Lala, a company acquired by Apple late last year. And while Lala wasn't able to offer unlimited streaming like Spotify, what it did offer was a free play of any song in its catalog along with other cloud-based niceties like a free music locker and streamed "Websongs" that one could purchase for a dime and upgrade to full-fledged MP3 files. Lala is being shuttered at the end of this month, just a week before Apple's World Wide Developer Conference.

Perhaps iTunes hasn't been rewritten in Cocoa because it will be rewritten in HTML5.

But Apple's purchase of Lala isn't the only sign that the iPurveyor has web-based music ambitions. With the release of iTunes 9, the software's user interface became ever more web-like, and introduced web-accessible previews. Furthermore, in the aftermath of Steve Jobs' "Thoughts on Flash", it was noted by several observers that iTunes remains a Carbon app, rather than being built with the more modern Cocoa framework -- just the kind of technological lagging for which Jobs criticized Adobe. As iTunes is a cross-platform program, perhaps it hasn't been rewritten in Cocoa because it will be rewritten in HTML5. (It's a good bet that it won't be rewritten in Flash.)

Exactly which pieces of Lala's service Apple will keep, discard or replace may not be known until WWDC (or later), but the new services plus the arrival of Spotify will certainly compete for attention and audience with Pandora and Slacker, and will likely create more options for accessing music without having to copy files around. The crowd in the cloud is about to get loud.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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