With iTunes In The Cloud, Apple Under-Promises And Over-Delivers

As the summer winds down and we near the fall, we know two things are for sure about to enter existence in the world of Apple: iOS 5 and iCloud. Given that both offer third-party developers various opportunities, both are in the process of being tested by that community. And that means things are starting to leak out. Tonight brought perhaps the biggest surprise revelation yet: iTunes in the Cloud will support streaming as well as downloading of music.

Now, before everyone works themselves into a tizzy yelling “FIRST!!!”, yes, it’s true that other music services have offered cloud-based streaming before — notably both Google Music Beta and Amazon Cloud Player this past summer. But neither of those is iTunes, the largest music retailer on the planet (online or “offline”). And there are plenty of other services that are streaming-only. It now seems certain that this fall, iTunes will offer both cloud downloading and cloud streaming.

And this is a big deal because during the iCloud unveiling at WWDC in June, Apple didn’t say a word about streaming. This led everyone to believe the feature wouldn’t be implemented when the service launched — a disappointment, for sure. But it now appears that Apple pulled the old “under-promise, over-deliver” trick. iTunes Match went live to developers for testing earlier tonight and music streaming from the cloud is already up and running.

It’s entirely possible that Apple didn’t announce streaming at WWDC because they didn’t yet have the music labels’ permission for the feature and now they do. It’s also possible that they don’t feel they need the labels’ permission — after all, neither Google nor Amazon obtained it before launching their services, and both are still live. It’s also possible that the MP3tunes decision last week affected Apple’s position. Regardless of how it happened, it happened. And that’s great news for everyone.

It also shows Apple’s prowess when it comes to the little customer delights. Apple announced iTunes in the Cloud and people were excited, but a little letdown by the functionality. But Apple was also announcing it at least four months prior to launch — something they don’t typically like to do with products. When iTunes in the Cloud finally does fully launch, Apple probably wants a few other surprises to show off at the unveiling (undoubtedly at the fall event, which typically is focused around music). One of those can now be music streaming from the cloud (though a bit spoiled by the developer leaks tonight).

Compare that to the way Google launched their cloud music service. Originally unveiled at Google I/O in May 2010, indications were that the service would launch later that year. Instead, everyone had to wait until a year later at I/O 2011 to get a rough version of the service. And I do mean rough: Google Music Beta requires you to upload all your music to Google’s servers in order to work. And there is absolutely no store attached to it for buying new music online. That’s still the case now, four months after the launch of the beta. Google over-promised and under-delivered.

Compared to Google Music Beta and Amazon Web Player, there’s now little question that iTunes in the Cloud is superior. Not only can you stream any song in your library, you won’t have to upload most of them — iTunes will match them with their files already in the cloud. The only thing iTunes in the Cloud is lacking is web support. But again, iTunes is the biggest music retailer in the world — most people who buy music have access to it. Android users may be shit out of luck, but that’s probably a feature, not a bug.

iTunes in the Cloud brings other surprises too. Notably, you can stream any TV show you’ve purchased on iTunes from the cloud as well. One has to imagine that movies will be next (though the rights may be trickier there). Again, none of this was announced with iTunes in the Cloud at WWDC.

The iTunes streaming functionality also opens the door a bit more for another possibility: the “cloud iPhone“. Rumors continue to circulate that Apple could unveil a low-cost iPhone 4 alongside a new iPhone 5 this fall. And if they do, it may come with a minimal amount of on-board storage. Instead, it may rely on the cloud for most content, including music. Now that iTunes has streaming functionality, this is possible.

Below, find some videos of the iTunes Match functionality on a computer and on an iPhone, by way of Insanely Great Mac.

Update: There’s some debate going on right now about whether or not this is technically streaming. Even Apple is avoiding the term, as Peter Kafka points out. There are two reasons for this — reasons Google follows as well with their service.