Tyler Barth

iOS developer and UX Designer

Defecting From iTunes Match

I was excited to hear about Amazon’s recent announcement that they are optimizing their MP3 store for viewing on mobile Safari.

The reason for my excitement stems mostly from the fact that this removes most of the barriers to completely switching my music cloud allegiance to Amazon’s service, and it actually adds an incentive. It took a long time to get to this point.

I’m a bit old fashioned. I know the cool kids these days all use Spotify or Grooveshark or some other streaming subscription service, but I still prefer to purchase individual songs and keep copies of them on my own computer.

The old way to get songs onto our Apple portables was to physically plug in our devices, and then sync them with iTunes. This worked okay for a while (and was a notable improvement over manual file management), but problems started to creep in.

Problem #1

If you’ve got more songs than room on your device to store them, then you have to make a decision during the sync. You have to decide to only sync some of your songs. If you’re out and about and want to listen to a song that you didn’t sync, you have to somehow make a note of it and try to remember to sync it next time. In the meantime you can’t listen to the song.

Problem #2

You have to physically connect your phone to your laptop or desktop to sync. With other changes in the architecture of iOS and iTunes, Apple has moved to make iOS devices and OS X devices siblings on the same level, this syncing goes against that architecture. Besides, it’s 2013, connecting your phone to your laptop is so last decade.

To solve these problems, Apple created the iTunes Match service. What iTunes Match does is basically identify all of your songs, and then give you access to copies in Apple’s “cloud.” It solves problem #1 by giving you unlimited storage in the cloud for all of your songs, but providing a reasonably elegant interface to download, on demand, any song from your collection that you want to listen to. Over time this makes it so that your device organically caches those songs that you most often listen to, while still allowing you access to songs in your collection that you spontaneously want to listen to but haven’t downloaded to your device yet. It solves problem #2 because now you don’t have to connect your phone to your computer: the cloud syncs from your computer, and your phone syncs from the cloud.

iTunes Match costs $25 a year, and might seem a little silly to pay for just to be able to access your songs on demand, but the elegance of not having to make a decision about what songs to put on my phone makes it worth it to me.

Why Amazon?

I prefer to buy all my music from Amazon’s MP3 store. The reason is kind of nerdy, but I think it’s quite valid: I prefer MP3 over AAC. The reasoning behind this is mostly historical. Apple’s iTunes Store used to sell DRM’ed AAC files. For obvious reasons, I’ve always tried to avoid DRM’ed media. When Amazon opened their store and started selling DRM free MP3s, I jumped aboard immediately.

In truth, Apple now sells only DRM-free files, as well, albeit in the AAC format. As an audio format, AAC is actually technologically superior, and MP3 is probably more burdened with patents, but MP3 is still more compatible and more future-proof. Someday, in the future, I may switch to a non-Apple music playing device, and though I can guarantee it will play MP3 natively, it might not play AAC. I also prefer to keep my music collection in one format, so continuing to buy MP3 makes sense for me.

First Party Privileges

However, being an Amazon MP3 store partisan has always had one huge disadvantage on the iOS platform: you can’t buy songs on the go. If you shop on the iTunes Music store you’ve been able to browse, purchase, and download songs directly to your mobile device for many years.

To use the Amazon store, I would:

  1. Buy songs on Amazon
  2. Download them to my desktop
  3. Import them to iTunes
  4. Wait for iTunes Match to match them
  5. Finally, download them to your device.

With the introduction of the new, mobile Safari compatible Amazon MP3 store and the existing Amazon Cloud Player iOS app, that convoluted process is collapsed to only two steps:

  1. Purchase the song in Safari on Amazon’s website
  2. Download the song directly to your device in Amazon’s Cloud Player app.

Brave New World

Before, the native syncing via desktop iTunes could not be replicated by Amazon and their cloud app seemed unnatural. Now, Amazon’s Cloud Player and Apple’s Music.app (with iTunes Match) are just two different but comparable cloud music syncing apps.

I must admit that alternative music players for the iPhone are still second-class citizens to Apple’s Music.app. Apple is still the platform owner and has access to private APIs that let them do more things. However, in the past five years iOS has progressed to close the gap between third party and first party apps to a great extent. Now, background playing and AirPlay are standard features for third party music apps. The largest remaining deficiency is that third-party music apps can’t share their music to other apps. This means only the music in your Apple music library can be accessed by other apps that might enable value-added features like lyrics or visualizations. If you use these features, Amazon’s Cloud Player might not work for you.

If you can look past that minor problem, then we have at last arrived at the reason I’m excited for Amazon’s announcement:

For the first time in the history of the iOS platform you can use Amazon’s third party music client while still having (almost) all of the perks of Apple’s Music.app: buying songs online, syncing songs with the cloud, and downloading new songs on the go.

For the first time, I am considering canceling my iTunes Match subscription and giving my $25 a year to Amazon instead of Apple.

Update My opinion has changed on this, see the new post.