Peter Kafka

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ITunes Music Update: Think Social, Not Streaming

When will Apple launch a cloud-based version of the iTunes music service that lets you stream your songs to wherever you are, whenever you want?

Probably not at Apple’s newest product launch next week. But music executives say they do expect a big overhaul of the iTunes music store. And we could see that next Wednesday. Think social, not streaming.

Industry executives tell me Apple (AAPL) has yet to approach the big labels for new license deals, which they say Steve Jobs and company would need if they want to run a streaming “locker” service. But Apple can do interesting things at iTunes without new label deals.

Apple plays its cards close to the vest even with the music labels it works with, so the people I’ve talked to are making informed guesses. That said, music sources tell me they’re expecting a lightweight, Web-based version of the iTunes store. The new version would be designed to synch up easily with the rest of the Internet and make it much easier for customers to share their musical tastes (but not songs) with friends.

Right now, you can get to the iTunes store only by using a downloaded program on your Mac or iPhone/iPod/iPad. But a Web-based version would allow buyers to get there without having to quit other applications. And if Apple makes it easier for services like Twitter and Facebook to link into the store and share recommendations, playlists and the like, then you can imagine some pretty interesting possibilities.

“There’s a reason Steve Jobs calls it an iPod–he thinks you listen to music by yourself, on your headphones,” says a label executive. “But lots of people like to share music, and if this lets you do that, that’s exciting.”

Some label executives also speculate about a wireless system that makes it easier for you to manage iTunes purchases. In theory, Apple could make it possible for you to move a copy of a song you bought on your iPhone onto your laptop without having to manually connect the two devices.

Apple’s license already allows users to synch their music on five devices at a time. So that wouldn’t require a new deal, just new technology. But it’s not the “jukebox in the sky” that many techies are eager to see.

Caveat: It’s possible, but not probable, that Apple goes ahead and launches a more ambitious locker/streaming service without the approval from labels.

That’s what small start-ups like mSpot are already doing. And subscription service eMusic has announced that it will launch its own locker service next year, and that it doesn’t plan on paying the labels any additional fee when it does.

But Apple is working very hard to persuade big media companies to let it sell their stuff. (It intends to announce a TV show rental service next Wednesday, though industry sources say most of the big networks still haven’t signed on.) Launching a new product while the labels squawk doesn’t seem to be a great way to go about it.

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