I’ve had this post in mind for a week or so. Originally, it was going to be mainly addressing Amazon Cloud Player, and then Google went and made things really interesting by officially jumping on the cloud music bandwagon. With that in mind, I’ve broadened my scope somewhat – enjoy.
The “cloud” concept has been taking off like a rocket over the past year or so. It’s a somewhat ambiguous concept, and some companies have really stretched the definition of what the cloud is (looking at you, Microsoft). In short, though, the cloud can be summed up as utilizing the storage, bandwidth, and processing power of the whole World Wide Web to do more than what your computer can do alone.
We’ve seen the power of the cloud manifest itself in many ways, from video (YouTube), to file storage (Dropbox), to productivity (Google Docs), to corporate America (thin-clients, SaaS, data analysis and decision support). I’m oversimplifying to some extent, but for the sake of this particular post, I think I’ve touched enough on the intricacies of the cloud.
The cloud can also enhance mobility. Think about the freedom and mobility we’ve already gained with the rise of powerful laptops, smartphones, and tablets. That mobility can be taken to another level with the ability to centrally store data in the cloud and access it with a device-agnostic mentality. The cloud can bring us anything, anywhere, at anytime, in theory.
Thus, it would be rather obvious for music to journey into the cloud. After all, music is one of the most mobile forms of entertainment (think back to the Walkman). Right now, many people store their personal music collections in digital format on their main PC’s, and then attempt to keep that collection synchronized across many different devices. It’s not exactly an elegant solution.
Advancing smartphone technology has worked towards solving this problem. For example, the excellent free Audiogalaxy program will stream music from a computer to any other computer or mobile device (iOS or Android). It’s a great step in the right direction, but it still requires the streaming computer to be on anytime you want to access music off it. That’s not incredibly efficient, and it doesn’t fully leverage the cloud. Still, I enjoyed the fact that I could sync a smaller subset of songs to my phone and still theoretically access my full library from my phone at any time.
However, the game is starting to change even more. In late March, Amazon quietly introduced Cloud Player, which allows you to store your songs (or any files, for that matter) on their servers and stream to an Internet browser or Android device. They offer 5 gigabytes for free, enough for a decent chunk of music (but not full libraries for the majority of people). They also had a promotion going on where you could get a year of 20 GB for free by making a purchase from their MP3 store. I was able to get in on that, but I’m not sure if it is still going on. Anyways, the concept is simple: you can upload your own songs, and anything you purchase on Amazon can also be dumped into your cloud space automatically. The music is there, on their servers, for you to access at any time. So far, I’ve had great success streaming music to both computers and phones with great quality. iOS support was quietly added a few days ago, though the webapp is not as nice or user-friendly as the native app for Android. Overall, it’s a great step in the right direction, though there are still drawbacks (more on that as I continue).
Google officially joined the bandwagon yesterday, announcing Google Music Beta at their Google I/O conference. It’s invitation only for now, and obviously there’s that Beta tag hanging around, but it looks to be a strong rival to Amazon’s offering. Google will start by offering space for 20,000 songs free of charge (no other pricing or plan information has been divulged yet, so that number could change in the future). As with Amazon, they offer software to upload from your computer, and they offer a web client (Flash-based -sorry iOS users) and Android app.
The big advantage for Amazon is obviously their MP3 store. Google doesn’t have a competing store, so Amazon wins there because they can draw on their existing customer base and work to convince them to move their purchases to the cloud. On the other hand, Google has more robust options for playlist creation at the moment, as well as offline caching that Amazon doesn’t offer. With Amazon, you will still need to manually download or sync songs to your Android device if you will be outside of 3G or Wi-Fi range, while Google Music lets you “pin” songs that will be cached to the device for offline access.
Still, the biggest drawback of all is the absence of support from the labels. Amazon pressed forward with their Cloud Player service despite a lack of major label support, and the same appears to be true with Google. Google actually announced initial plans for a web-based music service last year at I/O, but expectations seemed to be centered on a store and centralized repository. The hope was that Google could keep a database of what users owned what songs, and then stream those songs to users as requested. This would eliminate a great deal of redundancy and storage usage. Unfortunately, the labels continue to be slow to embrace change, as they continue to worry about their piece of the pie. Here’s a good article summarizing their main perceived issues. To Google’s credit, they didn’t give up on the idea completely when they couldn’t strike a deal with the labels; instead, they opted to go it alone. Hopefully, they can find success, gain customer adoption, and eventually drag the labels behind them, kicking and screaming into the future of digital music.
I’d also expect Apple to be a major player here. Rumors have been noisy (it’s Apple, what else is new?) surrounding their own plans for music in the cloud. Just as the iTunes store did for music sales a decade ago, iTunes in the cloud could be the catalyst to move cloud music forward. One caveat: Apple has been using iTunes as an omni-app for all of their media and mobile offerings. It’s a requirement for any iOS device, needed for syncing, and used to sell apps, music, and video. Apple certainly likes to keep eyeballs on their revenue streams, and requiring the use of iTunes is a big part of that. If people can move their media to the cloud and out of iTunes, Apple will have to make sure they have a way to keep those eyeballs on what they’re selling. Remember, even the “post-PC” iPad still requires the use of a PC for initial activation and downloading updates. Thus, I am very interested to see what route Apple chooses to take as they venture into the cloud.
I, for one, am very excited about the ongoing and upcoming developments in the digital music space. Just think about how music has evolved over the past ten years; we were barely starting to listen to music on computers then, and now we can practically access music anywhere and at anytime in the palm of our hand. Technology never ceases to amaze me.
Interested in discussing cloud music (or the cloud in general)? Feel free to leave a comment below.