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iTunes Match Is the Ghost of Lala

The startup’s music-matching technology is likely the foundation of an Apple service announced yesterday.

Steve Jobs is famous for “One more thing”—the final announcement at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in which he lays out the most awesome thing he has to announce.

Yesterday’s “One more thing” was iTunes Match, a service that scans a user’s library of songs and compares them to Apple’s vast iTunes music library. If the service finds a match, the user can treat that song as part of iTunes in the Cloud, meaning it’s stored by Apple and can be easily downloaded onto any device. This costs $24.99 a year, and it’s what Apple seems to have done with Lala, the music startup it acquired back in December 2009.

Lala allowed users to stream music from the Web to a browser, anytime, anywhere. Users could listen to any song once, or pay 10 cents for the right to stream a song. Another way to get music into Lala’s system was to download Lala’s Music Mover tool, which scanned your existing music library and matched what it found against its own records. If the Music Mover found you already owned a song, it credited you in Lala’s Web system, and you now had the right to play that song. Music Mover was most likely the foundation of iTunes Match.

It’s going to be a valuable tool for Apple, and a powerful draw for iTunes in the Cloud. Uploading songs to a cloud drive is a pain, and the manual upload required for Amazon’s Cloud Drive, for example, was seen as a major obstacle to adoption. Users will undoubtedly like being able to get all their music into Apple’s digital storage unit in minutes rather than hours.

Seeing iTunes Match, however, makes me think that Apple is unlikely to use Lala’s streaming technology. With Match, Apple’s already getting a valuable and potentially lucrative piece of technology out of its acquisition of the startup. It’s possible that Lala’s team also helped create Ping, the so-so social network that’s now part of iTunes, which is a hobbled version of some of the social features that Lala had.

Given the trend toward limitations on data plans and Steve Jobs’ famous concerns about quality (which may, for example, have inspired Apple to make users download movie rentals from iTunes instead of streaming them), Apple may decide that Lala’s streaming technology is more trouble than it’s worth–at least for now.

The specifications of iTunes in the Cloud will shape the battle for the future of how media content is delivered. Amazon and Google have both envisioned music services that include streaming as a significant component.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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