Amazon.com launched a heavy salvo against Google and Apple in the digital-music wars, with a new cloud-based service that allows customers to upload their music to the online retailer's cloud drives and play songs via a "Cloud Player."
Both Apple and Google are reportedly planning "cloud media" applications for their respective product lines. In December 2009, Apple acquired online music service Lala, a partner in Google Music, only to promptly shut it down. That sparked rumors that Apple was clearing the way for its own branded service, possibly supported by a newly built North Carolina server farm. In the meantime, speculation rages about a Google Music service allegedly under construction.
But Amazon, by leveraging its already-extensive cloud assets, seems to have outpaced both those companies with the March 29 launch of its Web-based music locker. With the service in place, and an Internet connection, users can stream their music to any PC, Mac, Android smartphone or Android tablet (apparently compatible with devices running Android 1.6 and above).
Amazon.com customers are being offered 5GB of free storage for their music on Amazon Cloud Drive. In a bid to leverage its presence in digital music, Amazon is offering to upgrade those free accounts to 20GB for a year if the user purchases an Amazon MP3 album. Songs purchased from Amazon MP3 are stored in Cloud Drive without counting toward the user's overall storage total.
In addition to music, Cloud Drive customers can also store photos, videos and documents. Fees start at $20 per year for 20GB of space, rising to $1,000 per year for 1,000GB. For those who earned a free 20GB by purchasing an Amazon MP3 album, the question remains whether Amazon will begin charging $20 once the deal's offered year of free storage is over.
Amazon is also taking on iTunes directly with its Cloud Player, which comes in Web and Android versions. "All you need is a computer with a Web browser, and you can listen to your music with Cloud Player for Web-no software to install-just a Web browser," Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in a statement posted on the retailer's Website. "The Android version is an app that lets you do the same thing from your Android phone or tablet."
While Amazon's Cloud Player supports the Web and Android, there is no native application for Apple's iOS franchise, which includes the iPhone, iPad and iPod. It is a conspicuous absence. Nor does the cloud player support RIM's BlackBerry or Hewlett-Packard's Palm.
But how well does Amazon's service actually work? If you're a pre-existing Amazon customer, the answer is "pretty smoothly."
After entering Amazon's Cloud Drive area (helpfully accessible from Amazon's landing page, where Bezos' statement has finally removed the seemingly-ubiquitous Kindle ad), users sign onto their Amazon account. From there, a plus-sized button asks you to "Select files to upload." So far, so good: a window opens, letting you select music from your hard drive. There seems to be excellent interoperability with iTunes, although all the songs tested were also free of DRM (Digital Rights Management) requirements.
The Cloud Drive isn't the speediest uploader in the world. In fact, in a speed test with an FTP uploader such as FileZilla, it seems downright slow. Uploading 250MB took over an hour on a cable broadband connection.
Once those files have been uploaded to Cloud Drive, of course, you can access the Cloud Player. The Web version of the application is no-frills: With individual songs, you can play, pause, skip forward or back to certain points. With the playlist, you can shuffle songs, repeat them, create new playlists, and subdivide by artist, album or genre. As with other streaming services, depending on the strength of your particular Internet connection, sometimes songs need a few moments to buffer before they begin playing.
In one interesting tweak, Amazon ferrets out the cover art for albums-even ones originally ripped from a CD-and displays it beside the track controls. If anything, this represents a step up from iTunes, which tends to pair music not purchased from Apple with a monochromatic gray note symbol.
Music companies are already beginning to object to Amazon's latest platform. "We are disappointed that the locker service that Amazon is proposing is unlicensed by Sony Music," Sony Music Entertainment wrote in a March 29 statement. Others will likely follow in coming days.
From early testing, it doesn't seem as if Amazon is offering much beyond what similar applications, including SugarSync, have already put on the marketplace. If one could conjecture for a moment, what likely frightens the music companies is the prospect of Amazon, having established this platform, then taking a page from Apple's book and bending them into tight deals or music or other media.
But is there anything here to fear for prospective users? If you're the cost-adverse type, and driven by the overwhelming urge to place all your music in the cloud, and own a ton of music, then Amazon's pay structure could be a turnoff. Similarly, those who want to listen to their music without an omnipresent Web connection will likely stick with traditional, hard-drive-based storage.
And then there's the inevitable privacy question: by uploading your music to Amazon, you're essentially giving them the right to monitor your stuff. ("You give us the right to access, retail, use and disclose your account information and Your Files," reads the legalese.) And if there's some sort of security breach, then the whole world is going to know about your secret Wang Chung obsession.
But if you want easy-to-use, stripped-down cloud storage for your music, Amazon now offers something definitely worth examining.