Streaming Or Not, Apple’s iTunes Match Seems To Offer Advantages Of Both

To stream or not to stream? That is the question; whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of a flaky wireless connection or to temporarily download an iTunes song as to facilitate playback. (It sounds better when Kenneth Branagh reads it.)

The back-and-forth over whether or not Apple’s iTunes Match feature allows you to stream a song over the Internet without having to actually download it was quite confusing, but it turns out to be an exercise in semantics over what it means to stream and to download. On Tuesday Insanely Great Mac noticed a feature within iTunes Match–a forthcoming service from Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) that lets you duplicate your music library on its servers–that appeared to let you “stream” a song from your online library, or play it back without having to add it to your on-device library. But later that day, AllThingsD was able to contact an Apple representative who denied that any actual “streaming” was taking place.

Further research by MacRumors and Insanely Great Mac helped tell the story. Apple’s implementation of this feature temporarily downloads the file into a local cache on your iPhone, where it can be played immediately after clicking the button. So it’s not technically “streaming,” in that a file transfer must take place to hear the song.

But the song will not permanently reside on your iPhone, which is the huge advantage of streaming services: access to a much larger repository of songs than would fit on a 16GB or 32GB iPhone. Instead, the next time the cache is cleared, you lose access to that song when disconnected from the Internet.

It’s not exactly clear why Apple is playing this so coy. This is actually a good thing, in that Apple has come up with a way to make sure the song still plays well even if you experience a temporary glitch in your wireless connection that might derail a streamed song entirely, yet the song won’t clog your on-device library. Several tests have shown that the song does not permanently reside on the phone after clicking the streaming button.

AllThingsD theorized that Apple wants its customers to think of Apple devices as the place where entertainment resides, as opposed to the Internet, which is why it has pitched iCloud as a service that allows you to *download* your music to any Apple device. Apple has reportedly secured licensing deals for streaming services from the four major record labels, so it seems unlikely that legal concerns are what’s afoot.

Apple’s positioning for this feature will be curious when it is formally released, which is expected sometime in the next six weeks or so. Until then, we’ll likely be subject to more esoteric arguments about the nature of streaming versus downloading from the hardcore techie crowd; ay, that’s the rub.