The last time Apple launched a music app, it transformed the music industry and Apple itself

Steve Jobs unveils the iTunes store.
Steve Jobs unveils the iTunes store.
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
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Apple Music, the company’s new streaming music service, is launching today in more than 100 countries.

If successful, it could be a big deal for the music industry, which has high hopes that streaming revenue could return it to growth. It could also be a big deal for Apple, whose last major music app—iTunes—became a pivotal product for both.

Rip. Mix. Burn.

When iTunes launched in 2001, its stated function was to make it easy for Mac users to rip digital copies of CDs they owned, make playlists, and burn CDs for playback. But it was even more useful for gathering collections of free, pirated music, downloaded from services like LimeWire. As music piracy took off, CD sales—and industry revenue—fell.

(Apple’s iTunes Music Store launched in 2003 and became the first mainstream source of “legal” digital music. It has generated billions of sales, but digital still represented a minority of music-industry revenue last year.)

The digital hub

The impact of iTunes was even bigger on Apple. While it was launched as “jukebox software,” its more important role grew as the syncing tool for Apple’s increasing number of digital gadgets and software products.

At first, iTunes kept music playlists organized and played trippy animations. Later, it moved songs and videos onto iPods. And then it grew to do everything: Digital media store, iPhone activation tool, podcast distribution network, backup manager, photo/contact sync, and App Store. Now, it’s perhaps bloated and neglected. But for years, it was the glue that held Apple’s fast-growing ecosystem together.

Play it again

Apple Music, likewise, is starting simple. Unlike the iTunes app, it’s not likely to take on many unrelated functions—Apple has its whole iCloud platform for that, now. (And unlike 2001, Apple has some real competition here—Google and Spotify are currently ahead.)

The key factor to its success is the rapid proliferation of more, cloud-connected devices in our lives, which are increasingly sold or serviced by Apple: iPhones, MacBooks, Apple Watches, CarPlay-compatible cars, Apple TVs, wireless Beats headphones, and so on. (Apple has also pledged to support Android phones and Sonos speakers.) Can Apple harness that ecosystem with enough competitive advantages—distribution, design, pricing, curation, quality—to dominate the music-streaming industry?