You don't have to wait until the fall to get started using a limited version of the company's iCloud music sharing service, announced on Monday.
A beta version of iCloud for iTunes is available right now.
First, download the latest version of iTunes, v10.3.1, which became available soon after Steve Job's presentation on Monday morning (with a minor update issued this – Wednesday – morning). You can get this latest iTunes version from the Apple Web site, or access Apple's "Software Update" function on your PC or Mac. (On the Mac, Software Update is listed under the Apple icon in the top left hand corner of your screen; on a Windows 7 PC, click on Start->All Programs->Apple Software Update).
Next, make sure your iPxxx is running the latest iOS operating system, v4.3.3. Start iTunes on your Windows PC or Mac, then plug your iPxxx into your computer. Click on your iPxxx when it shows up in the left column. Click on "Summary" – the far left hand tab on top of the iTunes window, then click the "Check for Update" button in the middle "Version" window.
If you're running an older version of iOS, just follow the on-screen instructions to upgrade.
What you see…
Once you know all your software is up to date, go get your iPxxx. Open the iTunes app. On the bottom row of options, tap on "Purchased" and wait. You'll soon get a list of all the music tracks you've purchased in iTunes, and two choices above the list, "All" and "Not On This iPxxx."
Caveat: iCloud is slow, both via a 3G cell connection and Wi-Fi. This is a beta version of the function, so don't expect it to work perfectly.
"All" gives you a list of all the tracks you purchased in iTunes. "Not On This iPxxx" is a list of your purchased tracks you don't have stored in your iPxxx's memory.
You can choose artists and songs, each track or album accompanied by a cute cloud icon and a down arrow. Tap the cloud and that track or album will download the track or tracks from iCloud to your iPxxx.
This beta of iCloud works the same way for apps – just go to your iPxxx's App Store and do the same Purchased->All->Not On This iPxxx function to get apps you've bought but don't have installed on your iPxxx.
No matching – yet
You can download a whole group of songs from a single album from a single artist with one click, but you can't download all the songs from a single artist on different albums at one time, or transfer your whole iCloud library to your iPxxx in one fell swoop. For one thing, the download would take hours.
And this beta only works with tracks you've bought in iTunes. iTunes Match, which would make music you ripped from CDs and transferred into iTunes and make it available in iCloud, will be a $25/year subscription service available in the fall along with iOS 5 and the rest of the free iCloud service.
Worse, you can't stream music from iCloud to your iPxxx, and many are disappointed Jobs didn't announce an expected streaming music service.
No streaming – yet
Streaming means you don't have to store all your songs on an individual device, you simply connect to your music library in the cloud. Theoretically, you can then control the playback of your entire iCloud library without having to sync or download any tracks to your iPxxx.
Being able to access your music from the cloud would mean you wouldn't need to spend extra cash on an iPhone or iPad with a lot of built-in memory (unless you spend a lot of time listening to music where you can't get a 3G or Wi-Fi connection such as in the New York City subway, like your humble correspondent, damn it).
Rumors have been swirling about an Apple music streaming service ever since the company bought a music streaming service called Lala back in December 2009. Many observers therefore believed a streaming service would be included in iCloud.
No such luck.
Too much data
One roadblock to an Apple/iCloud streaming music service is the curbs carriers are putting on data plans.
A streaming music service means you have to use either Wi-Fi or, more likely, AT&T's or Verizon's 3G data minutes to stream your music from iCloud to your iPxxx.
But AT&T has and, according to reports, Verizon will ax(ed) their "unlimited" data plans. This means if you stream a lot of music, you could expensively surpass your data plan allotment.
Plus, we all know how sluggish iPhone AT&T data connections can be in heavily populated metro areas. Streaming music over AT&T's network might entail a lot of buffering or other breaks in the music stream, not the seamless listening experience Apple would want to deliver.
Apple may wait to introduce a music streaming service until all the carrier data ducks are in a row, perhaps limit it to only the potential 4G-enabled iPhone 5, or only if you have a Wi-Fi connection.
Time will tell. But you can start playing with iCloud now.