A long-awaited cloud-based music storage service has launched — but it’s not from Apple or Google. Amazon.com has beaten both companies to the punch with Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Cloud Drive offers online storage accessible anywhere, much like a simple version of Dropbox or SugarSync. Cloud Player lets you listen to music you’ve stored in your Cloud Drive through a Web app or Android app, as long as the audio is encoded as unprotected AAC or MP3 files.
Cloud Drive and Cloud Player won’t have a huge impact immediately. There’s no iOS app for either, and the method of moving files and music in and out is extremely irritating. Amazon will improve on all this, no doubt, but for now it has achieved the first-mover advantage on Apple and Google: Amazon wants to lock people into uploading massive amounts of music and files, forcing a subsequent competitor to overcome the burden of convincing users to transfer and manage files on yet another service.
The fundamental flaw with cloud-based streaming music services is metered mobile broadband. If you can’t store music on your phone or tablet, and you must stream it — even from your own collection — you could wind up paying tens of dollars extra per month for something that’s free today when you store the music you want on your mobile device.
Cloud Drive Compared -- Cloud Drive includes a free 5 GB of storage for Amazon account holders; accounts are free to set up if you are in the statistically unlikely position of using the Internet and not having an Amazon account. If you purchase at least one MP3 album from Amazon, the company bumps your storage to 20 GB for a year at no extra cost. You can also purchase higher amounts of storage, ranging from 20 to 1,000 GB, for $1 per gigabyte per year.
This is cheaper than the retail price for Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3), which charges $0.14 per month ($1.68 per year) for each gigabyte stored up to 1 TB, and which lacks its own friendly front end. (You can use Transmit, Cyberduck, Interarchy, and other file transfer tools to manage S3 storage as though it were an FTP server.) S3 also levies fees for moving data around: $0.10 per gigabyte uploaded and $0.15 per gigabyte downloaded (after 1 GB free each month).
In contrast, Google charges $0.25 per year per gigabyte for storage added to any of its app services, with no transfer fees. With some third-party software help, you can use Google Apps storage just like other storage offerings. Dropbox’s standard storage plans offer 50 GB for $10 per month or 100 GB for $20 per month, which works out to $2.40 per gigabyte per year. Dropbox also include desktop synchronization, of course, which isn’t part of Amazon Cloud Drive. (Dropbox relies on Amazon S3, as do many of the online storage firms.)
Currently, you upload files to Cloud Drive via a file dialog in a Web browser, which is an awful interface. Downloads are also done via a Web browser, which is only slightly better. I suspect, as with the Kindle ecosystem, we will see Amazon producing native apps for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, and other platforms to make file transfer and sync easier, and it’s also likely that it will open the service to existing file transfer tools. Amazon could wind up competing directly against Dropbox et al., but I doubt it will go after these services in terms of features. Amazon’s consumer-facing interests lie in the media arena, not in computer services.
Several colleagues noted wryly on Twitter that Amazon has two wonderfully dissonant statements on the reliability of storage. On the Cloud Drive: Learn More page, the company enthuses:
Store files in your Cloud Drive and never worry about losing them if your computer crashes, or is lost or stolen.
5.3 Security. We do not guarantee that Your Files will not be subject to misappropriation, loss or damage and we will not be liable if they are. You’re responsible for maintaining appropriate security, protection and backup of Your Files.
The fine print is there to protect Amazon from undue penalties in an extreme case. Amazon’s S3 storage system has a high level of built-in redundancy for all data stored, both within a single data center and across its many data centers. Cloud Drive is likely reliable to an obscene numbers of nines — Amazon claims 99.999999999 percent for S3 “durability” — but that last 0.000000001 is a financial killer for your company if you promise 100 percent, and are sued as a result of lost data. More likely than hardware failure would be damage or theft due to attackers; we have to assume that Amazon is becoming an increasingly large target.
Cloud Player -- As with the interface problems with Cloud Drive, the limits on Cloud Player are currently severe. You must download the Amazon MP3 Uploader — an Adobe AIR application — to handle uploading music, and that experience, as with most AIR apps, is horrible. The non-native interface, non-intuitive behavior, sluggishness, and mysterious errors (like a timeout 90 percent of the way through scanning my library) are all frustrating.
Despite the well-established dominance of iTunes, and Amazon MP3 Uploader automatically finding the iTunes music folder, the app doesn’t scan the folder and use metadata to reassemble album and artist information. Instead, it relies on the folder structure to present upload choices. I have thousands of music files, and the iTunes internal folder structure isn’t a sensible way to sort through them. A separate downloader app lets you transfer items from the library directly into iTunes or Windows Media Player. You can also download files via a Web browser.
Amazon cheaped out by going the AIR route instead of building native apps. That’s likely due to deadlines: You can prototype and deploy a cross-platform service with AIR far faster than separate native apps.
Cloud Player’s only supported file formats are AAC and MP3. The files must be unprotected — that is, not wrapped with digital rights management (DRM) encryption. Amazon launched its MP3 store without DRM, and Apple was able to shed its DRM in April 2009. Nearly all music sold as downloadable files in the United States and most other countries is DRM-free. (Older DRM-protected music from iTunes can be upgraded for 30 cents a pop to strip the DRM.)
Amazon doesn’t make previous Amazon MP3 purchases appear in Cloud Drive, but purchases made after installation show up there automatically.
Playing back music is a much better experience, so long as you are using a desktop browser or an Android app. Metadata is used here, and artists and albums are organized appropriately. I tried to use the Web app in iOS, and after being told that I had an incompatible browser, the Web app appeared but was unable to play music on my phone. Being unprepared to use iOS devices at launch seems like a silly oversight.
Cloudy with a Chance of Apple -- Of course, there have long been streaming-music subscription services that store all the music remotely and play what you want on demand from a library of millions of songs. The first iteration of such services downloaded songs on demand, stored them in an encrypted format, and you didn’t need an Internet connection to play those files. The songs were deleted if and when your subscription ended or if storage needed to be freed up. This was a necessity for music players with no network connection. (Several of these services also included credit to download up to 10 tracks per month permanently for a $10 to $15 per month unlimited play subscription.)
The shift to on-demand streaming emerged from the growth of smartphones and 3G networks, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots. If you have Internet access wherever you are, why mess about with syncing music before you go or worrying about how much storage you have? Instead, you start streaming the music wherever you are, whenever you want it, dealing only with the time it takes to buffer the start of a song. These new services include Last.fm, Rdio, Spotify (outside the United States), and Pandora. All have free and premium flavors.
This makes you reliant on Internet service, though. If you’re out of range of a cell network or near the limit of your monthly tiered data plan, and you can’t find some handy Wi-Fi, you’re out of luck. With tiered data plans in the United States including as little as 200 or 250 MB of usage, it would be easy to run through that with frequent music playback over a cell network, and face overage fees.
Apple has so far firmly resisted this trend, relying on downloadable quanta: individual songs purchased individually or in a “bundle” of an album. Apple has said many times that people want to “own” their music, by which the firm means not that you have the rights associated with true ownership, but rather that you’re given a limited license to play the music forever on devices under your direct control. To listen to your music, you have to be at a computer or have remembered to sync songs to a mobile device. However, Apple watchers have been expecting a shift for years.
In late 2009, Apple bought Lala, a streaming-music service, and shut it down months later. The suspicion was that Lala would merge into something Apple was already building. Perhaps all iTunes songs you ever purchased would miraculously also be available for listening to over the Internet? Or Apple would launch some unique combination of subscription, streaming, and cloud storage?
Apple also has an enormous data center in North Carolina that can house hundreds of thousands of servers and has been rumored to be the ultimate home of either a streaming or cloud-hosted music service. Right now, it’s probably handling the relatively modest load of MobileMe, which comes with 20 GB of storage at a hefty annual fee (along with services like mail and sync), but doesn’t provide any way to play music directly. (Apple said at its last shareholders meeting that the facility would come online “this spring” and support MobileMe and iTunes operations.)
For now, we can only wait to see what, if anything, Apple releases, and, if it happens, how it stacks up against the current competition.
No Harm in Trying -- I have three conclusions about Amazon’s new Cloud Drive and Cloud Player services. First, there’s no harm trying them. They’re free. Second, they’re a shot across the bow of competitors, likely to produce better products for mobile music access by everyone in the music arena. Third, they will get better, as all Amazon products have.
Amazon has raised the bar. The question is whether Apple leaps over it with breathtaking indifference or limbos under it with something that doesn’t live up to the bookseller’s first pass.