Apple has started giving developers a chance to kick the tires on its upcoming iTunes Match service.
iTunes Match is the service that scans a user's library to find music that they may have ripped from a CD, but did not purchase from Apple, and cross-references it with Apple's own library. If it finds a match, it provides a user with a license of the full-quality track, as long as they're a paid subscriber.
In a surprise move, Apple quietly added the option to begin playing tracks once they've started downloading, and before the track is finished. It's not a true streaming-only solution, but it's a marked improvement from the prospect of having to wait until a track is fully downloaded to begin playback. When the feature was first introduced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June, there was only mention of tracks being downloaded before being played. That functionality was discovered and detailed by Apple blog Insanely Great Mac this evening.
As part of the test plan, Apple is giving developers access to the iTunes Match service free of charge ahead of the release, along with three months free. The plan itself runs 12 months, costs $24.99 a year, and covers 25,000 songs in a user's library.
To use the service, Apple notes that developers need to be running the latest beta of iOS 5, and a new beta version of iTunes 10.5.
As with previous software-driven initiatives, Apple has given developers early access to iCloud features ahead of its launch this fall. Developers have already gotten access to iCloud iOS device backup through the iOS 5 beta program, as well as early versions of its iWork apps, and the iCloud.com Web site.
Updated at 9:30 p.m. PT with information about the streaming component, and once again at 11:10 a.m. PT on August 30 to clarify how playback works.