March 3, 2011

∴ Apple and Your Media

Apple debuted the new iPad 2 yesterday morning, and announced the availability of iOS 4.3. iOS is the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch operating system. One of its new features is improved Home Sharing. What is that?

Apple mobile device users are required to plug in to a personal computer running iTunes to tansfer music, podcasts, photos and other content. That's called syncing. Many have asked Apple for the ability to sync their device instead over their home WiFi network, avoiding the tyranny of the cable. Is improved Home Sharing the answer? Apparently not. From Apple's release PR:

iTunes Home Sharing
Share over the air.
Now you can play your entire iTunes library from anywhere in the house. If it’s on your Mac or PC, you can play it on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch over a shared Wi-Fi network.3 And not just music. Watch a movie or TV show. Play a podcast. Or listen to an audiobook. On whichever device you want — without having to download or sync.

Footnote 3:

Requires iTunes 10.2.

iTunes 10.2 was made available late Wednesday.

That doesn't sound like WiFi sync to me. It's playing content directly from an iTunes-running computer, via WiFi. That's nice, but the content can't go out the door with the user unless it's synced to the device.

Greg Hughes, an independent software developer, solved this problem last year with his WiFi Sync app. His app does exactly what users want: it syncs content from iTunes right to the mobile device as if it were plugged in with a cable. A forthcoming version promises to sync the two via WiFi as well as 3G. The app is $10, and the linking software for your Windows or Mac machine is free. It can only be had via Cydia, however. That's the app store for those who jailbreak their iOS device. Without jailbreaking the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, users are still waiting for Apple to do what Google did with the Android platform two years ago. Enable WiFi sync.

Here's where Apple's long-term strategy becomes interesting. The company introduced their latest Apple TV product late last year. The previous version included an on-board hard drive, for storing movies, music and tv shows purchased from the iTunes store. The new version did not. The updated device was designed instead to stream content as-needed from the iTunes store, online. And the iTunes store would no longer offer to let users buy movie or tv content; without a drive to store it, users would instead rent it. In other words, users don't ever possess the content.

Now we have the new iPad, which lets users stream content from a computer on their home network. Content they already possess. It lets users listen to and watch their previously-purchased movies, music and tv programming, stored on their computer. But the new iPad, using improved Home Sharing, doesn't store the data itself. Again, the data remains separate from the device and only arrives the moment you want to see or hear it. And while users may possess previously bought content on their computer, Apple has plans for that, too.

With each device update, media content is another step removed from a user's possession. The next step will likely occur when the long-discussed Apple data center (Engadget) comes online this summer (the date has slipped since that article was published). Newly-purchased music and podcast bits from the iTunes store will reside on Apple's data center storage, and your iOS device will stream it to you live, when you want to hear it. Sort of like Pandora, but you own the music. With enough storage capacity at Apple's data center, users might even move their previously-purchased movies, tv shows, podcasts, and music to "cloud-based storage" and have it all available for streaming to any iOS device, any time. And your media content will be completely removed from your possession, even if you own it.

Apple will become the center of your communication and media consumption lifestyle without owning or operating messy television, telephone or network infrastructure, just storage and devices. Storage is cheap, and devices are what Apple has designed and sold since the 1970s.

Improved Home Sharing is not the same as WiFi sync. Maybe Apple is after bigger fish.