A patent application released this morning has provided clues to features Apple might add to iTunes and iOS to make entire music libraries take up less space on mobile devices with limited storage.
U.S. patent application No. 20110118858, which was unearthed by Apple Insider earlier today, details a system where segments of music clips from a user's library are stored locally on a device. When combined with an infrastructure that can fetch the rest of a song once it starts being played, this could provide users with a seamless music listening experience of their entire library, even without having it on the device. That is, if Apple provides a way to stream the tracks to the users through the cloud, either from its own storage or a network-attached computer.
"This invention is directed to playing back streamed media items using an electronic device. In particular, this is directed to locally storing one or more clips corresponding to a media item such that the clips can be immediately played back in response to a user request to play back the media item," the patent's summary describes. "While the clips are played back, the electronic device can retrieve the remaining segments of the media item from the user's media library as a media stream over a communications network."
The patent's unearthing comes just a day after Apple signed a cloud-music licensing agreement with EMI Music, as CNET reported exclusively last night. Apple is close to reaching agreements with Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, which would enable Apple to offer a streaming music service with content from those labels.
While the licensing factor is one side of the equation, the other revolves around what kind of mechanisms need to be in place for users to access a cloud library, and what kind of resources that will require on Apple's end. The company has invested heavily in its own data centers, and is reported to have taken on a seven-year lease of additional data center space in a third-party facility in Santa Clara, Calif. Such efforts could be a pivotal part of delivering streamed content to high volumes of users.
Apple already offers music and video streaming to iOS devices through its MobileMe iDisk application, though it's lacking any sort of integration with a user's iTunes library. That system also does not take advantage of local storage to let users cache recently viewed songs or videos for instant and offline playback.
The system described in the patent could also be especially useful if Apple ever ends up rolling out a super low storage, or storage-free version of the iPhone aimed at budget-conscious consumers. Several outlets, including Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and TechCrunch posted stories back in February that Apple was hard at work on a smaller version of the iPhone, with just those features. That device, it was said, was being designed to come in at a much lower price tag than previous versions of the device. Following those reports, The New York Times specifically came out saying that Apple was not considering shrinking the size, though it said built-in flash storage could very well be on the cutting block.
As a reminder, this is a patent application and not a patent that's been granted to the company.