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Amazon Cloud Drive and Cloud Music Player

When we think of major platforms and ecosystems, some familiar names come to mind. Microsoft, of course. Apple and Google, surely. But Amazon?

Yes, Amazon. Quietly, but relentlessly, online retailing giant Amazon has moved to establish itself as the cloud-based platform and ecosystem with the most value, and as astonishing as this sounds, this company may in fact be the most powerful competition that Apple, Google, and Microsoft will face in the coming years.

This suddenly rapid change shouldn't be surprising, though it is, and to me as well. But the evidence has been there all along:

Amazon, the biggest seller of (paper based) books established the Kindle, first as an eBook reader but then as a platform-agnostic eBook ecosystem that works virtually everywhere you want it to be, on PCs and Macs, on the web, and on all major smart phones and mobile devices. It also bought Audible, the dominant audio book platform, and moved to eliminate the silly side-loading model it was previously using in lieu of superior and rich mobile apps.

Amazon, the biggest retailer of video games and software, quietly and without many headlines, now offers PC game and software digital downloads, and maintains a library of all your purchases so you can easily re-download and re-install them at any time.

Amazon, the biggest retailer of CD-based music, long ago launched Amazon MP3, its web-based music store, offering the only viable competition to Apple's iTunes and pioneering the use of DRM-free, industry standard MP3s, in a high-quality 256 Kbps format. These songs play nice with every computer and portable device on earth, including Apple's.

Amazon, the biggest retailer of DVD and Blu-Ray movies, long ago offered Amazon On Demand, a streaming and download service for digital video content. Recently updated to include a new Amazon Instant Video service that is free to subscribers of the company's Prime shipping service (another excellent Amazon innovation), Amazon is now taking on Netflix, the streaming video market leader, and other services like Hulu.

Amazon, more recently, launched its own Appstore for Android, an excellent and superior alternative to Google's Android Marketplace, providing Android users, for the first time, a safe and friendly way to find, download, and manage a collection of apps for their smart phones. By doing so, the company instantly made itself the go-to location for the most popular smart phone platform on earth, and established itself as the leading vendor in a new market.

Which brings us very neatly to this week's amazing new Amazon offering, Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Amazon isn't the first company to offer cloud storage, heck, it isn't even the first ginormous company to offer it. And it isn't the first company to offer cloud-based music management and playback. But it is already the best offering, with the best service, and the best record of simply succeeding where others have failed. That it beat both Apple and Google to this point--both are racing to complete their own similar offerings--is, perhaps, the most incredible bit of all.

Well, not quite. The most incredible bit of all is that when you combine all of the previously mentioned Amazon offerings and view them as an increasingly cohesive whole, you can suddenly see why Amazon is one of the top-tier players in the cloud today. This is a company that has the means and desire to compete in many markets which it can then link in very interesting ways, creating what is in effect a new ecosystem of its own, one that treads very neatly between a number of competing platforms. Amazon is, in effect, out-doing the major platform makers of our day--again, Apple, Google, and Microsoft--while generally not excluding the users that have bet on those platforms. This is an amazing accomplishment, one which few people seem to even realize is happening all around them.

With that bit of perspective out of the way, let's see what they've done with Cloud Drive and Cloud Player, see where the Amazon offerings excel, and, of course, where they fall short.

Amazon Cloud Drive

Put simply, Amazon Cloud Drive is the company's consumer-focused cloud storage service. (Amazon also offers corporate-oriented cloud storage through its S3 service and a host of other related business services via Amazon Web Services. Presumably, Cloud Drive is built on this same, well tested infrastructure.)

So you can consider Cloud Drive as a web-hosted version of a USB hard drive, I guess, though at this early stage in the game there's no simple way to upload or access any Cloud Drive content except for music. (More on this in a bit.) According to Amazon, Cloud Drive is compatible with a wide variety of file types, and the company pre-creates obvious folders on the service for Documents, Music, Photos, and Videos. You can create your own, too, and delete the pre-made ones Amazon supplies.

Amazon provides 5 GB of storage per year, for free, and unlike with Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive service (which provides 25 GB of free storage), you can buy more storage for an annual fee as well. (Tip: Purchase just one MP3-based album from Amazon MP3 and Amazon will up the first year of free storage allotment to 25 GB too.)

Amazon says that your files are securely stored, and I believe it based on the company's track record, but then again the inevitable disclaimers disavow any responsibility in the event of a problem, so be sure not to store anything important only on this service. And access is described as being possible from "anywhere," where in this case "anywhere" really means "from any web browser." I tested access to the service from the PC, of course, but also from a variety of devices.

And sure enough, "access" always works. But if you need to do something with the files in question, your results will vary based on the capabilities of the device in question. On Windows Phone, for example, you can log on to the site with IE Mobile, navigate into Documents, and when you tap a Word document, it opens in Word Mobile 2010. That's actually pretty useful. (Saving a Word Mobile 2010 file to the service from Windows Phone, however, is another story.)

That Cloud Drive is new and basically only comes with web-based access is understandable, and I expect various rich clients to appear in the future. (What I'd really like to see, of course, is Explorer integration in Windows, and the ability to use that offsite storage as a target for Windows Backup.) But even using Amazon's own web-based tools, there's no easy way to bulk upload any content at all, except for music.

With music, you get a nice MP3 Uploader application that will examine the contents of your iTunes and/or Windows Media Player libraries and automatically upload and then sync your entire music collection--including the playlists from both players, no less--to the cloud.

This is a wonderful capability, and the one-time upload of my 25 GB music collection took roughly 7 hours to complete and is now completely up-to-date. (I purchased the 50 GB plan.)

I'll discuss the music capabilities more in the next section, but the issue I'd like to highlight here is that Amazon offers no such uploader for other content types. So you're stuck using a basic web uploader which, get this, can't upload folders, but can only upload files (including individual files or multiple files in the same folder). That makes this service, for now, absolutely worthless for uploading large collections of documents and photos since those files tend to be organized within specific folder structures.

Also problematic is the cost. Amazon's pricing chart for Cloud Drive amounts to roughly 4 times the cost of similar tiers for Google's cloud storage scheme. (That said, Google has its own issues, too. Google cloud storage is almost impossible to find, and in contrast to Amazon, is focused largely on photo storage and sync, via Picasa and Picasaweb. This may change as Google introduces the fabled Google Music service.)

How different is the pricing? On Google, 20 GB of storage costs $5 per year, but that amount on Amazon is normally $20, or four times as expensive. Google offers 200 GB for $50 a year, but that amount only gives you 50 GB on Amazon. And so on: Amazon's pricing is always four times as expensive as Google's.

Still, it's Amazon. And while trustworthiness isn't necessarily worth a 400 percent markup, there's still something to be said for the fact that Google, well, just isn't that trustworthy. Like many of you, I've had an account linked to a credit card on Amazon for many, many years, and I've come to trust the company and its services. This is a farm fuzziness I don't feel, and probably never will, towards Google. Hopefully, as Google expands the ways in which you can use its storage, Amazon will feel the competitive pressure and lower prices. But for now, Cloud Drive makes the most sense if you only goal is to store and access your music collection in the cloud.

Amazon Cloud Player

On that note, the other piece of this new initiative is the Amazon Cloud Player, which allows you to manage and play the music you've stored in Cloud Drive using a web-based interface. (Amazon also provides playback and download access to Android users via a new version of its Amazon MP3 app; I'm also testing this app.)

And yes, the Amazon Cloud Player is a full-featured music player, akin to iTunes or Windows Media Player, with various views of your collection--songs, albums, artists, and genres--and full access to all your pre-existing iTunes and WMP playlists. You can also create your own playlists in the cloud, play any of these entities straight through or with shuffle and/or repeat on, and download any and all items from the cloud to your PC.

What's missing, and I don't think this will be a huge deal for most people, is any kind of individual song editing. You can't edit MP3 or AAC meta data, add or change album art, and the like, so you'll need to do this before uploading. And some of the songs I uploaded came across with the right song name but were marked as being by "Unknown Artist" on "Unknown Album."

These aren't huge issues, and frankly the player works well, well enough that I could see dropping PC-based music management software over time.

Amazon also provides some interesting additional functionality with its Amazon MP3 music service so that you can optionally "download" purchased songs directly to Cloud Drive, which makes plenty of sense if you plan to just play them via Cloud Player anyway. And there's another reason to do this: Songs purchased in this fashion do not count against your Cloud Player storage limit.

The Android-based player works well too. It's integrated into the new version of the Amazon MP3 app, which was previously used solely to browse Amazon's store and purchase songs. Now, it can also play music, that stored on the device itself as well as music in your Cloud Drive. For cloud-based songs, you get most of the same views as with the PC web version--playlists, artists, albums, and songs--and you can select items to download them to the device so you can play offline (such as when you're going to fly or are in some other area with no connectivity).

Sound quality of both the web-based player and the Android client is excellent. If your music is 256 Kbps AAC or MP3, that's what you get via Amazon's software, not some scaled down copy. My only real complaint about the Android player is that it doesn't integrate with the device's lock screen.

Final thoughts

While Amazon's new Cloud Drive and Cloud Player have some maturing to do, make no mistake: This service is a shot across the bow of all the major industry heavyweights, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, none of which has been able to offer such an interesting and intertwined series of services in such a short time. Cloud Drive, seen as part of a bigger puzzle, is an impressive new competitor, and a boon to consumers as a result. But even if you have no intention of paying Amazon for storage, I recommend checking it out now, especially if you're a music lover. I've seen the future of digital music, and it's in the cloud.

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