In the Game of Clouds, You Win or You Die

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That collective sigh of relief you heard today came from Amazon and Google, happy that they will live to fight another day in the war for the cloud.

When Steve Jobs, the formidable Warden of the West, took the stage at WWDC today, much of the world expected him to land a killing blow to the aspirations of Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Music.  It didn’t happen.  While interesting, the much anticipated iCloud is not going to march through cyberspace like a host of digital Lannisters and ascend to the aluminum throne.

Not by a long shot.  In fact, Instapaper and Dropbox probably suffered more casualties today than any of the others who aspire to rule the cloud.

First of all, iCloud is not a streaming music service, in the way we have come to expect.  It’s more like a semi-automated Dropbox that syncs your music between up to 10 devices.  That’s great, but it is not a game changer.

Second, it doesn’t, at least as far as I can tell, create a remote backup of your music files in the cloud.  That would be pretty hard to do with only 5 GB of space.  Maybe you get to almost the same place if you can bulk download your songs, but even that would be Ned Stark to the neither rational nor reliable music industry, and the term and terms of its license agreements with Apple.  Stated another way, if I have to choose between the mild hassle of a one time upload of my music library (and the resulting certainty that I have accessible files that I own)  and $25 a year for the rest of my life (with only the right to access the songs based on the terms of the iTunes Match agreements), I’ll probably gut it up and upload, so I can keep the money, and the files.

At first blush, I think the music labels may have been clever like a fox in agreeing to this deal.  It must be refreshing for them to focus on something other than trying to find the digital cat to stuff back into the obsolete bag.  In that regard, I’d be shocked if part of the discussions that led up to Apple’s license with- and payment of big bucks to- the music labels wasn’t some express or implied assurances that the music label cartel will march against the digital lockers of Amazon and Google.

Third, how many people want all of their music converted to AAC format?  I have MP3s and don’t know that I want to move to another format just to avoid some uploading time.  A better bitrate is nice, but not enough for me to completely change formats.  Accordingly, anyone wanting to preserve their non-iTunes music in its current state would have to manage and backup two separate sets of music.  Their existing MP3s and the converted AAC files.  That is not the sort of cloud convergence I was hoping for.

Fourth, iTunes.  Frickin’ iTunes.  Even with all the automation promised by iCloud.  Even with the ability to sync wirelessly.  We still have to live with that blight and bloat called iTunes.  If Apple wants to change the world, it should start with iTunes.  Never before has a program so badly needed a do-over.  It needs to be completely rewritten.  It does not need to be the vanguard of Apple’s host- in the cloud or on the digital battlefield.

And finally, time.  Amazon Cloud Player (to all) and Google Music (to some) are available right now.  Presumably, Spotify is going to finally and officially launch in the United States at some point.  Meanwhile, iCloud is coming “in the fall.”  The fall, in online time, means a long time from now.  You can be assured that Amazon and Google know that winter is coming, and are hard at work trying to expand their lead.  It will be very interesting to see how much those services improve between now and the arrival of iCloud.

At the end of the day, consumers are caught between three armies, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Amazon has integration with Amazon’s MP3 store.  That alone will carry it a long way on the path to fealty.  But Amazon’s web player is a little kludgy (though less so than iTunes).  On the downside, there is little chance that an Amazon Cloud Player app will find its way onto the App Store.

Google has the most elegant interface.  It is the one I use the most, with Spotify looming as a contender, if it every officially launches in the United States (I still think Spotify is pretty cool, but I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to officially use it).  But there is no embedded music store, and the process of getting your music into Google’s cloud is not as simple as I’d like.

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Apple has iOS and the hardware that runs it, and, more importantly,  the keys to the App Store, which is almost dragon-like on the battlefield.  I have an iPhone and an iPad, and whatever apps I use are going to have to work on those devices.  And, of course, Apple has the Warden of the West, who can sell ice to Eskimos purely on personality.  But, again, the feature set of iCloud is pretty underwhelming.  And the entire infrastructure is tainted by the mere existence of iTunes.

Generally speaking, competition is good for consumers.  That’s probably the case here.  However, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that there will not be, at least any time soon, a one stop cloud for all of my digital content.  I was expecting to be blown away today.  Instead, it looks like cloud music will require a combination of services, and maybe some work-arounds.  Much the way Google Voice requires some work-arounds to dial out.  It works, but not as well as you want it to.

So here we sit, Ned Stark like, in the dark, waiting for someone to free us from our digital dungeons.  Wondering what’s going on out on the battlefield and worrying that whatever happens probably won’t be what we planned.

Here’s hoping Amazon and Google unite their banners and lay siege to the scourge that is iTunes.  It probably won’t happen, but it would make things interesting if it did.

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