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By Wilson Rothman
msnbc.com
updated 7/14/2010 7:58:15 PM ET 2010-07-14T23:58:15

Despite all of the iPhone antenna craziness, Apple's hardly out of tricks. Many think Apple's next move is to take its iTunes service to the "cloud" — streaming music from anywhere to anywhere. A new survey said millions of iTunes users are willing to pay for a streaming music service. And hey, if Apple doesn't do it, Google surely will.

The survey, conducted by the NPD Group, a market research firm, said that seven to eight million people who currently use iTunes — along with iPod, iPhone or iPod Touch — would be willing to pay Apple a minimum of $10 per month to access any music anywhere.

"The market opportunity is close to $1 billion in the first year, which is roughly two-thirds the revenue garnered by the current pay-per-download model," said Russ Crupnick, NPD's senior entertainment analyst.

Though Apple had nothing to do with the survey, this wasn't a wild guess on NPD's part. Not long ago, Apple bought a music service called Lala that had done a lot of groundwork to secure the label contracts necessary for a cloud-based iTunes. To make things more mysterious, Apple closed Lala back in May, causing a wave of speculation.

The service would be different from Pandora or Slacker as it would presumably stream exactly what you ask for, exactly when you ask for it. That requires more than just a "radio" license. Still, this sort of service would compete with Pandora, and even presumably include a selection of streaming "channels" for lazy listening.

Meanwhile, Google has raised some eyebrows with its own music-service acquisitions. Until now, its Android mobile platform hasn't been known for media; with no iTunes-like software and retail operation, it's been hard to compete with the iPhone. But a few months ago, news came out that Google had quietly purchased a software maker called Simplify Media, which had been selling an iTunes app that sent music from people's computers to their iPhones. The app vanished from the Apple App Store, and soon after, Google showed off a similar app on an Android phone.

The NPD survey said that 15 million iTunes users would like a free service that gave them online anywhere access to music they already bought. While that doesn't sound like much of a strategic or money-making move for Apple, it does sound a lot like what Google intends to offer in the near future.

Apple has to do something. Google is breathing down its neck, and Google isn't afraid to make moves that are unpopular with copyright holders, or have unclear profit motives. Google likes changing things, and very few institutions are more ripe for change than the music business.

Add to that the fact that music labels themselves prefer subscriptions to one-time downloads — it is revenue they can count on, and the music itself is usually wrapped in anti-piracy software — and you've got enough pressure to make even Steve Jobs buckle.

And now that we know such a move could make Apple a quick billion, buckling doesn't sound so bad.

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