Sony’s Streaming iTunes Rival Now Plays to a Larger Audience

Sony’s Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity (s sne) service, which launched in the UK and Ireland in December 2010, is expanding to France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Music Unlimited competes directly with other cloud-based music services like Spotify, Pandora and, but it could pose a real threat to iTunes(s aapl), too.

Music Unlimited offers a two-tiered pricing structure for subscribers: €3.99 ($5.46 USD) per month provides personalized radio channel access, while €9.99 per month allows users to listen in full to any song on demand, and create their own custom personal playlists. Sony has a unique advantage over its cloud-based rivals in that it owns one of the four major record labels, which means it already holds the rights to at least a quarter of its track library. Music Unlimited also has the support of the three other major labels, including Universal, Warner (s wmg) and EMI, providing a total library of around six million songs. And the future looks brighter still.

The plan, ultimately, is to bring Music Unlimited stateside sometime in 2011. Along with U.S. release, Sony also intends to expand the service compatibility to more devices. Currently, Music Unlimited is only available on Internet-connected Sony devices, including network TVs and Blu-ray players, the PlayStation 3 and Sony’s VAIO line of computers. Sony Network Entertainment CEO (and Apple veteran) Tim Schaaff had this to say (via CNET (s cbs)) about future Android (s goog) and iOS compatibility:

When you provide these services, you’ve got to provide customers the ability to access the content wherever they are. We don’t see that supporting devices from other manufacturers is a problem to the business model… It’s very natural for us to support Android and iOS over time.

Multi-platform support is something Sony has already acted upon, too, since it made good on an earlier promise to bring its Reader app to Android just recently.

Mike Wolf recently asked who might be best positioned to create an iTunes in the cloud. While Sony appears to be taking things slowly, it also seems to be making more headway compared to the other companies Mike says are exploring the space. It may not have the iPhone or Android behind it, but Sony’s device ecosystem is hardly weak, and rumors are swirling about the upcoming introduction of a PlayStation phone and the PSP 2, a next-generation portable gaming console that will compete with Nintendo’s 3DS. Both could substantially add to the company’s mobile presence.

Music Unlimited also has another big advantage over many of its startup rivals: it includes, rather than replaces, your existing music library (including your iTunes purchases). It manages that by scanning your drive for music, and then making those tracks available to stream. Unlike mSpot, which uploads your own music files to the cloud for remote access, Music Unlimited just uses the files already on Sony’s servers, saving you the hassle and time necessary when performing mass uploads.

Sony is playing the cloud music game very well, and after a decade and a half working at Apple in various capacities, including as VP of Interactive Media, Schaaff is well aware of the stakes. Playing nice with the existing content investment of consumers and a policy of platform agnosticism (so long as that actually materializes, and I think it will based on Shaaff’s comments) is the right way to lower adoption barriers and bring people onboard. As Mike put it, it’s still “Apple’s race to lose,” but if Sony can manage to keep the faith of record labels and show that the subscription-based revenue model can work, Apple may be caught sleeping on the starting blocks.

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