Amazon announced early today that it would immediately make available a cloud-based media service called Cloud Drive. Actually, it's less a music service and more like an off-site storage locker with an app that serves as a mobile interface. Amazon is pushing the convenience angle hard, appealing to hypothetical consumers' sense of frustration at having to save and copy between multiple music libraries. The Cloud Drive, it says, will get rid of all that hassle.
Customers who use the service will essentially lease storage space on Amazon servers from which they will be able to download or stream content: music, videos, photos — from any computer with an Internet connection, or from an Android phone — that they have bought from Amazon, or uploaded to the service.
We spent the morning playing around with Amazon's Cloud Player to try and figure out how it works and what it means for users. What do you need to know? Here are some of the highlights.
- Do I have to buy all of my songs over again, or can I just upload songs from my hard drive to the cloud until my locker is full?
When you log in to the Cloud Player and download the uploader tool, Amazon searches your hard drive — including your iTunes folder — and asks if you want to upload the MP3s it finds to your Cloud Drive. It took about an hour to upload 460 songs from one hard drive in our office to the Cloud Drive. On a wireless connection it took 3 1/2 hours to upload about 300 songs.
There were 490 audio files on that drive, though. And here's where you run into Amazon's restrictions. The Cloud Drive only accepts MP3 and AAC files, so fans of .wav, .flac and other lossless formats will have to convert those files or leave them out of the cloud.
Here are the other files Amazon says you won't be able to upload: songs with DRM; songs that are bigger than 100 MBs; ringtones, podcasts, audiobooks and "other non-music audio files."*
*Amazon says it won't upload podcasts, but we had no problem uploading an hour-long podcast saved as an MP3 and listening to it from the Cloud Player.
- Which labels are involved?
All of them and none of them. Right now, if you've got a song on your computer, it doesn't matter who released it. But Amazon doesn't have agreements with any particular label, because it says there's no need to have the permission of copyright holders — since the Cloud Drive is just holding onto your property. The labels might not see it the same way, and this is the problem an older cloud-based music service called MP3tunes ran into. It continues to operate, but under the shadow of a pending lawsuit from from labels and publishers under the umbrella of the major label EMI.
- How does this change the way labels and musicians get paid?
It doesn't. Which will generate plenty of controversy, especially if the Cloud Player takes off. Amazon is calling the Cloud Drive just another storage option for users, one that has many ports of entry. That position allows them to argue that uploading and copying MP3s from one drive to another isn't a transaction that needs to involve labels, publishers, musicians or other copyright holders in any way.
- How much will this cost me?
The first 5 GB of storage are free. Amazon says it will store each and every MP3 you buy from them for free – so those files don't count toward your first 5 GB. Right now Amazon is offering 20 GB of additional free storage if you buy one MP3 album from it. If you want more, it will cost you about a $1 a GB, so that means $100 a year will get you space for maybe 20,000 songs or 7 hours of HD video. Compare this to buying a hard drive to store your files: 500 GB for a onetime payment of $50.
An image of Amazon's Cloud Player app for Android phones.
- If I'm on the subway and have no network access, can I listen to a song that's on my Cloud Drive?
Yes, sort of. The Amazon MP3 app for Android phones (not available via the iTunes App store, which means iPhone users won't have access to their Cloud Drive on the go) has two settings. (1) You can listen to the music saved to your phone's memory at any time. (2) If you have cellular reception or a wifi connection, you can access your locker and either stream those songs or download them to your device.
- Is this going to make AT&T and Verizon extremely happy? Are my data rates going to go up if I'm streaming my library from a cloud-based locker?
There's no reason to think that streaming or downloading songs from your locker wouldn't count toward whatever data limits your cell phone plan includes. And yeah, if lots of users go over their limits, carriers will probably make a bundle, as long as their networks don't crash from the increased traffic.
- What format will songs be in? Do I have a choice? Are the songs in my locker mine? Or are they just links to saved versions of files on the cloud that everybody shares access to?
The songs you stream from Amazon's player will be MP3s or AACs, because those are the only formats it allows you to upload. Rather than sharing access to a central library of material, the songs in the locker are yours — when you upload them to Amazon's cloud, you're uploading a copy of each one.
- So now all of my songs are safe forever, right? They're not gone if my laptop gets run over by a lawn mower or my baby sister eats my hard drive or I drop my Droid in my whiskey?
Here's where storage space that keeps all of your files and identifies them with you becomes a double-edged sword. Ostensibly, yes. Your files are now away from moving parts and become the responsibility of a corporate entity. They are also away from your direct control. What if the people that own the copyrights to the songs you uploaded to Amazon's cloud make and win the argument that you didn't pay for them, or you didn't pay enough for them, or they just never really belonged to you and convinces Amazon to destroy the files in question from their servers? If that happens your files are just as gone. Unless, of course, you back them up somewhere else. But doesn't that sound like a hassle?