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How Apple could make “iCloud” revolutionary

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Now that we know that Apple is set to announce their “iCloud” service, it’s time to start a-wondering what the service will feature.

But while it’s possible that iCloud will simply be your music tracks in the cloud – like Dropbox for audio files – that would be a disappointment. iTunes revolutionized music for a lot of people. It made it immediate, expansive and easy.

So what would a ‘revolutionary’ cloud service look like? What might Apple (or anyone else) do to make a truly new experience?

(Note: Even though iCloud may include video, I am focusing for now on music here.)

Embrace the new cloud mentality

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To put it simply, Apple need to challenge their own approach and think: “Netflix, not iTunes”.

The real change of the cloud is not only the fact that your music is available anywhere, whether walking down the street or on another computer.

The ‘big shift’ as I see it is that it should change the idea of a media collection based on accumulation to a collection based on curation. Instead of adding a limited number of individual tracks or films to your library, you should be able to create a limited number of playlists from an almost infinite number of tracks. It’s a new cloud mentality that takes the abundance of music and film as fact, but turns personalization and curation into scarcities.

Imagine being able to produce a playlist from, oh, 100 million tracks instead of the 10,000 you have in your library. That is the promise of the cloud – not ‘wireless syncing’ (though never having to worry about managing a music library will be pretty cool.)

Of course, it will require a new approach to monetization, one that will be about access and personalization features. But big changes require new ways of thinking. It’s this more than anything that will truly signify a change.

Make social and sharing fundamental

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Although Apple has struggled with attempts like Ping, they really need to get the social aspect of the cloud right.

That means that you should not only be able to send a friend links – you should be able to publicize your playlists, listening habits and trends a la And more to the point, that cloud aspect of sharing should be anywhere – so that even when a friend uses their own iPhone, they can access your playlists.

Social may require limits or tiered pricing to make the monetization aspect work. But one of the few areas in which that digital hasn’t surpassed physical music is the ease and pleasure of sharing. Apple should try and fix that by baking in social as a constitutive element of iCloud.

Nail discovery and recommendation

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This is a huge, overlooked part of our contemporary relationship to entertainment.

Finding new music should be even easier than ever. I mean, we have algorithms! And all sorts of other fancy technology!

But the problem is that there’s so much entertainment now. Not only is it easier to get access to music within the genres and regions you like, it’s easy to get it from all over the world or from subcultures you would have never had heard of before.

So recommendation must become much more tailored and algorithmic. It must also deal with the fact that , in 2011, people are far more likely to have tastes that transcend boundaries of genre or period, and we’re much close to an ideal in which people simply ‘like what they like’.

In order for Apple to really make their iCloud stand out, they need recommendation to work in a new way. Perhaps it should be based on a mix of past behaviour, mood, tone, and the behaviour of other listeners. I’m not sure, to be honest.

But what I do know is that with the huge flood of music and film we get these days, there simply has to be a better way to find new stuff that is similar to – but not the same – as that which you have liked before. What we have now isn’t working – and a solution would be amazing.

The big question: The labels

Of course, all of this hinges on the huge issue of whether or not Apple was or will be able to twist the arm of music labels  to accept the new realities of the cloud.

Traditionally, labels have been very conservative, choosing to see music as still scarce in the digital world, when it is of course not. The ‘new cloud mentality’ I’ve listed above may be too bold a vision for content owners who still wish to act as gatekeepers of content, rather than the people who make your experience of an almost limitless amount of content better.

That means that when Apple unveil their iCloud, it may be a lot more conservative than would be ideal. And if it is simply Google Music plus a way to buy music for iTunes, it will be a serious disappointment and an enormous missed opportunity.

For iCloud to be truly revolutionary, it must do three clear things: embrace the abundance and infinitude of the cloud; make social an integral part of the experience, rather than a secondary one; and figure out a way to make discovering music better than it is today.

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