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For all the buzz about Apple offering its own cloud-based music service, the part of the company’s iCloud announcement today that resonated most with me was Photo Stream.

The service will automatically grab photos taken on iOS devices or imported to a user’s Mac — or Windows PC — sync them up to the online service, and share them with the rest of the user’s devices. It’s not groundbreaking from a technology perspective, but the implementation looks nice, a simple way of dealing with something that remains a huge challenge for many of us today.

No more emailing photos to yourself. It’s also free, as will be the other core iCloud services when they come out this fall.

Less simple is the company’s new iTunes in the cloud. Music tracks purchased from iTunes can be easily shared among the user’s devices via the free part of the service, released in beta today. But when it comes to tracks not purchased via iTunes, users will need to pay for a $25/year service called iTunes Match if they want those track in the cloud. Here’s how Apple describes the process.

iTunes determines which songs in your collection are available in the iTunes Store. Any music with a match is automatically added to your iCloud library for you to listen to anytime, on any device. Since there are more than 18 million songs in the iTunes Store, most of your music is probably already in iCloud. All you have to upload is what iTunes can’t match. Which is much faster than starting from scratch. And all the music iTunes matches plays back at 256-Kbps iTunes Plus quality — even if your original copy was of lower quality.

Interesting, but it seems like Apple is creating an unusual hybrid of download and subscription-based music services here. It’s notable that the company compares the service to Amazon and Google’s subscription offerings, but not to pure subscription music offerings such as Rhapsody and Zune that offer simple access to huge music libraries in the cloud, no need to match an existing library.

Granted, iTunes Match is cheaper (Rhapsody is at least $10/month by comparison) but on the surface iCloud doesn’t seem like a huge threat to the Seattle-based music service. It would have been much more interesting for Apple to offer its own real subscription music service.

The story is different for Rhapsody’s former parent, RealNetworks, whose forthcoming Unifi cloud-based media-management service seems to face a tough new competitor in the form of Apple’s iCloud.

The file sharing and sync components of iCloud are also notable, with competitive implications for Dropbox and other cloud storage services. The New York Times rounds up the various other apps that will face new competition from Apple following the iCloud announcement.

Update: Watch the recorded video stream of the Apple WWDC keynote.

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