A Status Report On The Cloud Music Warzone

I don’t care if you’re a war buff or what sport you’re into, you’re going to be hard pressed to find a more back and forth battle than that for supremacy of the cloud music market right now. Increasing definitive headlines all proved to be premature: “Amazon wins cloud war”, “Google and Apple will acquire licensing before releasing music lockers” and “Apple to beat Google on cloud music.” Now that the dust is somewhat beginning to settle, the only thing that can be said with complete surety is that the enormous number of variables involved promises a very interesting future for the business of cloud computing.

While Amazon may have come out the gates first, it seemed doomed to a Napster-esque legal attack from the recording industry due to the unlicensed nature of the Amazon Cloud Player/Cloud Drive. However, Amazon immediately let their stance be known in no uncertain terms: they don’t need new licenses from the record companies since users are streaming their own already licensed music. Amazon spokesperson Cat Griffin went so far as to liken the model to a users external hard drive. Thus far, aside from posturing and promises such as Sony’s that it will “keep its legal options open,” there’s been surprisingly little in terms of record companies’ response.

Whether emboldened by Amazon’s seeming safety, or simply following the plan they had constructed all along, Google announced the release of their Music Beta on Tuesday (May 10).  Like Gmail on its release, Music Beta is available only by invitation. Though relatively limited for now, as any beta test program,  the high demand and low supply of invitations has ensured that it’s the Ferrari Enzo of online acquisitions.

The question has been asked, however – exclusivity aside, how can Music Beta compete with Amazon? Amazon’s position does seem somewhat daunting. They are, of course, first and foremost a gargantuan digital content retailer.  Though they offer a paltry 5GB of free storage space, a purchase of 1 MP3 album from Amazon.com raises that limit to 20GB you can upload – and that doesn’t include albums bought from Amazon, that go directly to your Cloud Drive. Amazon’s service extends beyond just music – and in what seems the ultimate equalizer, their Cloud Player works with both Android and Apple devices.

However, seeing Google as the underdog in this fight would be another premature assessment. There’s certainly a very large contingent of music listeners that have no interest in purchasing music from Amazon. For them, Music Beta (and it’s full version, should the price point vs. storage space remain better than Amazon) will off the bat be more desirable. These same users are more likely to want  a bit more versatility in their mobile features and Google’s got it – examples included an iTunes Genius-like feature that creates custom playlists in your Cloud and intelligent mixes. And while the discovery of music on your hard drive by Amazon’s service has been reported to be a long tedious process, Music Beta is, by comparison, reported to do a fine job (even with your iTunes library.) Something as simple the ability to edit your song’s info to ensure your online library is perfectly organized gives you an idea of the idea they’re going for.

But rarely is the copy as good as the original. And Apple has a storied history of coming later into the market and destroying the competition. With any product offered, they have the advantage of the ‘Apple Nation’ – users that will use nothing but Apple’s version of a product or service. This is often with good reason – Apple fanboy or not, no one expects Apple’s offering (whether it will be labeled iCloud, MobileMe or otherwise remains to be seen) to be anything less that silky smooth and extremely feature rich. And while many musicians and music aficionados wait anxiously for the day when record companies become obsolete (myself included), Apple’s patience and co-operation with the record industry could still prove to be a big boon.

Already reported to have struck a licensing deal with Warner, Apple could now see themselves rivaling or even surpassing Amazon in terms of catalog. This could grow to include exclusive content – always a trump card in the world of music. Further, now being the only remaining major player, Apple may acquire licenses at a relative song as it becomes in the record companies’ best interest to ensure Apple’s success at this war in the the Cloud.

So right now we have both Amazon and Google with their shiny new offerings, and both are deservedly getting a whole lot of attention. But with Amazon’s bold revenue-generating-with-no-love-for-the-record-companies model, and the said companies’ pointing that Google’s transcoding at upload of other formats to MP3 arguably creates a new file that needs a new license, these two could be in a world of hurt down the line. Apple is expected to roll out the best of the best, but for a field as fluid as this one, one has to wonder if it’s the one where Apple’s ‘later but better’ technique may not succeed. So who’s the real winner?

Well, we are, of course.

To quote the quirky lady in the Microsoft ad: “Yay, Cloud.”

 

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