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iTunes Match now in beta, includes music streaming

Apple (s aapl) has begun testing iTunes Match with a limited portion of the Apple developer community, as of late Monday. The iTunes Match service is a subscription-based part of iCloud that scans your existing iTunes music library and stores a 256 Kbps copy of all matched songs on Apple’s servers for you to access from any connected Apple device, so long as your software is up-to-date. Perhaps the biggest news, though, is that even though Apple didn’t talk about it when the service was announced, iTunes Match appears to support remote streaming, in addition to downloads to local device storage.

Developers were granted early access to iTunes Match Monday afternoon, via a sign-up page included in a newly released version of the iTunes 10.5 beta. Our sources say Apple appears to have cut off new iTunes Match registrations for the time being, saying that it will be expanding its initial pool of testers over the next few days. Developers still have to pay the $24.99 yearly subscription fee, which allows you to store up to 25,000 songs on Apple’s servers, but the period between now and the service’s public release, as well as an additional three months of service will be free of charge. Developers are also warned that any music stored during the beta period will be deleted at the end of testing.

In addition to the ability to download music directly to up to 10 devices (including a maximum of 5 computers) associated with a user’s iTunes account, iTunes Match provides another feature that hasn’t been specifically advertised by Apple: the ability to remotely stream tracks from the cloud instead of having to download them first.

That iTunes Match is now live for testing is good news, since it means we’ll hopefully see it arrive on time this fall alongside iOS 5 and iCloud. The website Insanely Great Mac has a video of iTunes Match streaming in action, which you can see below. It’s a feature that many thought was missing from Apple’s music service when compared to similar offerings from Google(s goog), Amazon(s amzn) and Spotify. It’s still possible the streaming aspect won’t make it into a final release version of iTunes Match, but if it does, Apple will have an even stronger contender on its hands than most people anticipated.

Note that iTunes Match will be U.S.-only when it launches in fall, probably due to issues with obtaining international licenses for all the music streamed. Apple will no doubt be trying to roll out the service to other markets through negotiations with major record labels, a process which could be helped along if the U.S. launch goes well.

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