The Digital Download Is Dead

How Google’s music-streaming venture will change the gadget and entertainment worlds forever.

While the iPod has come to symbolize the digital music age, it’s iTunes that’s allowed Apple to control the musical marketplace. iTunes has a nice interface, it’s easy to learn, and it’s ubiquitous—it ships with every Mac, and it’s one of the most downloaded Windows programs around. Other companies may make great phones and music players, but they don’t have the desktop software to sync your music, apps, and photos. That’s why Palm worked up a hack last year to connect its phones to iTunes—and why Apple quickly shut down the workaround.

Yet despite its omnipresence, iTunes hasn’t aged well. Unlike most Apple products, it’s gotten slower and more unwieldy over the years. The Windows version is the most annoying program I use on a regular basis. (I don’t find the Mac version much more pleasant.) For one thing, it requires constant upgrades. These days the best desktop apps refresh themselves automatically; Chrome, Google’s fantastic Web browser, remakes itself without any user input—you start it up and suddenly there are new features delivered from afar. iTunes takes the opposite tack: It wants to be upgraded about twice a month, and it demands constant attention during the process. You’ve got to approve the 80-plus-megabyte download, you’ve got to click several times as it installs, you’ve got to agree to a new license, and you might be asked to reboot your computer. And for what? Most upgrades result in no discernible improvement.

Google’s Nexus One smartphone

The worst part is syncing my music and photos with my iPhone and iPad. I usually try to do this when I’m leaving the house—in other words, when I’m in a hurry. iTunes doesn’t care. It takes 30 seconds or so to identify my device, then several minutes to sync, and it’s not unusual for the program to run into some kind of problem along the way, requiring me to start over. All this hassle seemed tolerable back in the days before Wi-Fi, but now it’s anachronistic. It’s 2010—why do I have to plug anything into anything to get files from my computer onto my phone?

Or, as Google exec Vic Gundotra put it this week, “Guess what? We discovered something really cool. It’s called the Internet!” Gundotra was speaking at Google’s annual developer conference, where the company showed off a raft of improvements to Android, its mobile OS. (It also unveiled Google TV.) Android phones already do lots of stuff wirelessly; because the OS is tied to your Google account, most of your data flies over the Internet, and you don’t even need to plug the phone into your computer to upgrade its operating system (which you have to do with an iPhone).

Soon Android will be completely untethered. An upcoming version will let you buy apps and music from any computer—the files will then appear instantly on your phone. The best part, though, is that Android will let you play all the music on your computer without syncing your hard drive to your phone. As Gundotra explained, you’ll do this by installing a small app on your desktop that will send your music—whether it’s in iTunes, Windows Media Player, or anywhere else—to the Internet. (This only works with non-copy-protected music, which means pretty much everything except audiobooks.) Once the files are online, your phone will have access to your entire music library whenever you’ve got an Internet connection. In Gundotra’s demo, the system worked very well: Even though the music doesn’t live on your phone, it behaves exactly as if it does—it even includes album art. You press play and the song starts in seconds.

Gundotra didn’t say when this feature will become available, but for Google’s sake, I hope it’s very soon. That’s because Apple also seems bent on building what’s been called “iTunes for the cloud.” Last year it acquired the music-streaming service Lala, seemingly a prelude to Apple launching some manner of Web-based iTunes. I’m guessing that will happen this summer, when the company releases a new iPhone.

There are advantages and disadvantages to getting your music from the cloud rather than through syncing. The cloud gives you unlimited space: If you have 200 GB of music at home, you can get it all, even if your phone only holds 32 gigs. But streaming requires an Internet connection. The wireless Internet is getting better all the time—especially as carriers move to faster “4G networks”—but it’s still hit or miss, and you won’t be able to stream your songs in the subway or on out-of-the-way road trips (or—if you live in San Francisco and use an iPhone—outside your house).

Thankfully, Android will allow both—you can make all your music available from the cloud, while you can also sync some of it so you can play your tunes in a tunnel. Even better, there are apps for Android that allow you to sync music wirelessly, meaning that, yes, you can download music to your phone without ever having to connect it to a computer. Programmers have created similar systems for the iPhone and iPad, but Apple has rejected them from the App Store. That could be a sign that Apple plans to build that functionality into its devices. Or it could be a sign that Apple is just being Apple.

Either way, the syncing era is clearly on the wane. It seems likely that in a few years’ time, every phone, music player, and tablet PC will hold all your music and photos (and maybe even TV shows and movies) regardless of where you are. This will mark a profound shift in the gadget and entertainment businesses. For starters, it will erase Apple’s iTunes advantage; you might use Apple’s software to manage your music, but you’ll be able to use any company’s gadgets to play songs on the go. It might also herald many new kinds of devices. For instance, carmakers could build Android into their in-dash entertainment systems. You wouldn’t need to carry an iPod to get your music in the car. Or imagine having access to your songs through an alarm clock in a hotel, or the in-flight audio system on a plane.

The music industry could very well balk at these possibilities. Although it’s technically legal to put your music online for your own use, it has never been especially easy to do so. You can bet that both Apple and Google will add measures to restrict mass sharing of online music—one reasonable restriction would be to let you stream your music to only a single device at a time—but the technology will still change how we think about our songs. Cloud-based music will represent the ultimate psychological break with the idea that entertainment is somehow physical. In the future, not only will you not get a CD when you buy an album, you won’t even get a digital file. All you’ll have is an access flag tied to your account in a database in a server farm in some far-off land.

This sounds dreary and antiseptic, but it’s not: The music will sound just as great. It’ll just be anywhere, all the time.

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