McDonald: Sounding off on the Cloud

Just over a week ago, Amazon.com announced its foray into the music streaming business with its new Cloud Music Player. While it’s true that the Amazon rainforest is almost always cloud covered, the name of the new player is more of a reference to the underpinning technology: Cloud computing. Cloud computing is not quite as nebulous as it sounds — except that when sound (i.e., record companies) is involved, the legality is far from clear.

The basic idea is that Amazon provides server space (part of the “cloud”), on which to store your music, video or other document files — kind of similar to an external hard drive that you’re never going to see. The files are then completely accessible to you through any computer or compatible smartphone equipped with a garden variety web browser and an Internet connection.

The real benefit of a cloud-based service is that you can manage just one music library and access it on your desktop at home or your small hard drive laptop at work, or better yet, your smartphone. For Amazon, this just means Android phones for now (there are non-sanctioned workarounds for iPhones).

In terms of consolidating and using just one library, the biggest obstacle for Amazon is again for iTunes users who purchased lots of music through Apple before their DRM-free days. These files, among others, cannot be uploaded — even as just a regular file to the Cloud Drive, Amazon’s “cloud” space” (I tried). (Propitiously, I lost patience with the iTunes store long ago, which I found to be agonizingly slow and plagued with overpriced songs.) To be fair, the Cloud Player itself is easy to use, although not as pleasant as iTunes, even if it’s an obvious riff on the Apple design.

To kick off the service, Amazon is providing each customer 5GB on Cloud Drive free of charge. Because music files can be stored, which may then be played on the Cloud Player, Amazon has created a de facto music streaming service, much to the chagrin of the recording industry, which would prefer to get revenue from licensing. Indeed, part of why we don’t have better streaming services is because of stalled negotiations between labels and appealing start-ups, like Spotify, a popular and fairly comprehensive on-demand streaming service in Europe. For now, Amazon says that because it is only storing music files, no licenses should be required. But almost assuredly Amazon will have to put up some sort of fight in the future to keep Cloud Drive as it stands.

Nevertheless, as an avid music fan and consumer, I like Amazon’s service, and have had difficulty resisting the obvious incentives to get hooked on their platform. For one, you get a free upgrade to 20GB for one year if you purchase any mp3 album from Amazon before the end of the year. Check and double check (I’ve already purchased two — albeit absurdly cheap — albums). Second, mp3s purchased from now on at Amazon never count against your total when automatically uploaded first to your cloud space (by design, too, this is absurdly easy). Although additional space is available at a reasonable, but not entirely manageable $1 per GB per year (my music library is approaching 100GB), I probably won’t want to go past my free 5GB. Or least that will be my goal.

Other than cost, the primary impediment to users (but potentially a legal saving grace) — especially those with large libraries — is that anything not purchased from Amazon has to be uploaded. Mercifully, Amazon has created an Uploader program that can automatically search your computer for music files. If I had a small library, I could have just told it to upload everything relatively easily. Instead, I chose just one album of ten songs. The estimated time to upload was under a minute; my somewhat elderly computer managed in two. The time and energy investment to just upload your non-Amazon purchases could easily spiral out of control, especially for a service that might end abruptly due to legal battles.

While Amazon’s Cloud Player is a step in the right direction, and hopefully a galvanizing force in the market to speed along the rumored Google and Apple cloud services, what I’d really like to see is some sort of Amazon-Spotify hybrid. Spotify does not exist legally in the United States yet, and its basic service does not allow for uploading of your own songs. So, if the large but nevertheless incomplete Spotify catalog doesn’t have your new favorite band — perhaps some fledgling band of people you happen to know and love in a nearby garage —you can’t listen to it easily all in one package. Conversely, the Amazon Cloud service only is available in the United States for now, and only consists of tunes you’ve either purchased or uploaded. Either way, the future of music consumption is in the cloud.

Jessica McDonald is a fifth-year student in immunobiology.

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