Cloudy with a chance of downloads
Amazon today preempted much-vaunted cloud-based music streaming services from Google and Apple. The new Amazon Cloud Player service lets users store their music (and other files) remotely, taking advantage of the company's reliable and widely used S3 server infrastructure, with a streaming Web player for desktops and Android devices (no iOS support at this point, though there are some workarounds). 5GB of storage is free on signup, with fee-based plans ranging on up to a terabyte. Currently, Amazon'll give you an extra 15GB of storage for one year ($20 otherwise) with the purchase of any MP3 album from their store; a no-brainer if you're planning on buying any MP3s at all and have any interest in the space.
The service is a snap to use; after signing in you're prompted to download an Adobe AIR-based upload tool which automatically searches your music libraries or lets you browse for music stored elsewhere. Somewhat sadly, it appears only to support MP3 files-no high-resolution formats-and obviously it doesn't play iTunes DRM content. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the Amazon MP3 store sells its wares encoded at 256 kbps. The interface isn't beautiful, but it is simple-you can upload files with a few clicks and good feedback on upload progress (it's going to take a while to move any significant amount of content to your Cloud Drive space), then play it all back from the browser or a free Android app (available from Amazon's own Appstore or the Android Market), wherever you might be. Overall, not bad for version one of a fairly complex software product, played as a trump card against major competitors.
Playback is impressive-minimally glitchy over 3G, and seamless over Wi-Fi. This is a keeper, if just for the storage space (Amazon beats Dropbox on cloud storage capacity offered, if not functionality-there's no automatic desktop sync, or capacity for simultaneous download of multiple files, for instance, so it's not quite as generally useful). It's also a portent of interesting things to come from Apple and Google, who will likely need to offer significantly more once their streaming services launch.
A nagging question for the future of any such services is whether future listeners are going to want to manage their own files at all, once Spotify and similar services take hold on this side of the Atlantic. This appears to be the way things are headed. Of course, with everyone demanding 24/7 access to libraries hosted remotely, one wonders what the implications might be for playback quality, given Netflix's recent decision to reduce video bandwidth for Canadian customers whose ISPs have capped their data plans. However things shake out, we'll be dealing with a lot more traffic on the information superhighway.
- Michael Berk