In the beginning we were happy with our little 512 MB mp3 players. We were in seventh heaven because the tracks were no longer skipping as it used to be with the old portable cd players. The songs we could put on a cd were not so many, but nonetheless we used to take a lot of care in choosing the best ones, the ones which we always had to bring with us.
At some point something has changed and we’ve felt the need to have Frank Zappa’s entire discography (88 albums, A.N.) always at hand. And there came a shower of 2GB…20GB…160GB mp3 players! With the release of the iPod Touch, it immediately seemed to me very strange that, instead of improving the prior iPod Video with an increased memory (which, by that time, was already up to more than 100GB), the maximum giga amount for the device was rather poor (16GB). Clearly Apple was already up to the big score, knowing that our voracity was already beyond the memory capacity concept. What if, without having a high capacity hard disk, we had all our music at our disposal whenever we need it, and at the same time, an unlimited storage space? This is, in short, what the cloud computing allows us to do. While it is taking long to explode in Italy, the rest of the world has already chosen: the future of music is solely online.
The services we are hearing the most about are Amazon Cloud Drive, Apple iCloud, Google Music and MP3Tunes. In this list we can notice the absence of Microsoft which, up till now, has been counting on a “generic” platform (Azure). Moreover Google Music, as well as Spotify (a different case which we will be talking about soon), is not available in Italy.
The main variables of the cloud computing services for the virtual storage of music tracks are:
• free storage capacity;
• extra storage price;
• maual or authomatic synchronization of files;
AMAZON CLOUD DRIVE
For those who have a (free) Amazon account, Cloud Drive (Pic.2) provides a 5GB “locker”. Such a limited space is not enough to meet the average listener’s needs. The prices for the extra storage are 20 dollars a year for a 20GB “locker”, a good compromise if our library is about this size. Additional extra-space will cost us 1 dollar per giga and the minimum amount available is 50GB. Obviously, the tracks purchased via Amazon will not affect any of our precious online storage gigabytes. In addition, when purchasing an entire digital album, Amazon will reward us with 20GB storage, which will be free for a year. How to store online the files from our library? There are two options, both of them still not optimized. The first one consists in synchronizing the files manually, a work which brings to two cons: it takes a lot of time and patience; lots of vital information for the files gets lost, leaving us with a great number of files by “Unknown Artist”. The second one is what Amazon suggests us. It’s an app that searches for songs throughout your database and synchronizes them automatically. If it hadn’t been that slow and full of errors, it would come in handy.
As we would imagine, all the songs purchased on iTunes Store are automatically stored for free on the virtual cloud that Apple arranged for us. In addition to this option, on line with Cloud Drive (Pic.3), 5GB storage is provided for free. In case it isn’t enough, the yearly prices for additional storage are the following: 16€/10GB, 32€/20GB, 80€/50GB. As always, the good thing about Apple is in its “organic-whole” aspect: if you own an Apple device, choosing iCloud is what appears to be almost due, especially for iPhone and iPad. If you don’t have a Mac but if you usually use iTunes even on a pc for listening and organizing your audio files, iCloud will appear to be much more tempting in comparison to the other services thanks to iTunes Match. This app allows us to synchronize online all our files from our library (including the ones which have not been purchased from iTunes Store) with unrivalled easiness and quickness. We must remember that the powerful Apple have been building solid bonds with some famous artists and labels through the years, therefore it could reserve some exclusives to their users in the future. The Apple’s double edged sword is always the same one: it will not be possible to play files without an iOS device or with different software from iTunes since, with iCloud, we could not access our library simply with a browser.
For the time being it is not possible to use Google Music (Pic.4) in Italy. The only ones who could already test it are the American users, but the bits of information on line are exciting. It is (so far) the only one completely-free service. As well as the other services we’ve been reviewing, Google Music is combined with an online shop. We are obviously talking about Android Market. Unlike the competing iCloud, Google Music doesn’t have any limitation when using it via non-Android devices. As always the sore point (perhaps the only one) is about the file synchronization aspect. As well as Clod Drive, Google Music requires a little software installation, Music Manager, for searching inside our folders and uploading the tracks. The program in question, though having fewer bugs than Amazon, is very slow and still too far from the iTunes Match convenience. Moreover, once having selected one of the two options “iTunes folder” or “other folder”, if we insert new tracks inside one of these folders, Music Manager will automatically update our cloud leaving us without a choice-option. Once the extremely boring upload is done, Google Music apologizes showing us its pros. The first one is indeed the economical aspect. The storage is limited to 20.000 tracks (about 80GB) with no chance to expand it, but everything is absolutely free and the provided space is more than satisfying. Other options are both the competitive prices within Android Market in comparison with the ones of iTunes Store, and the “Artist Hub” function which allows independent artist to promote and sell their music without middle man and personally setting a price list for their tracks retaining the 70% of the profit. In addition, we can listen, just for one time, all the tracks from our friends on Google+ social network, which is a not-yet-defined option that record companies don’t like very much. The latter is the most controversial aspect and we will have a much deeper approach as soon as we talk about Spotify. Although the Android market is not as stocked as the iTunes store, Google Music and its free and sharing philosophy seems to be the only one service that can thwart the overwhelming power of Apple.
Let us also include a service which cannot compete with the large multinationals, but has been a pioneer in cloud computing music services. MP3Tunes (Pic.5) defines itself an MSP, Music Service Provider, therefore providing a nomenclature for these services, which we were not yet able to call in any way. The service in question has its own player, Locker (a term stolen from Cloud Drive) playable on Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS and Android. There is only a free 2GB storage space. If we need additional space and to remove the annoying adverts, prices are as follows: 40$/50GB, 75$/100GB, 140$/200GB. Not very competitive but and the automatic sync software, LockerSync, has the same defects we’ve been talking about for the previous cases, however, this MSP case is very interesting, at least for its farsightedness (it’s been founded in February 2005). MP3Tunes doesn’t have “proprietary” stores as Amazon, Apple and Android do. Until recently it allowed its users to purchase music through the main e-shops (Amazon, iTunes, Rhapsody, 7digital, Napster and Zune). After a lawsuit with EMI (which we’ll be talking about in our next analysis), MP3Tunes is closed at the moment, and users can only purchase music via Amazon.
Pic.6 shows a comparison among the main features of the abovementioned services. After this overview on the most popular Music Service Providers, for the fourth part of “A cloudy future” we’ll be pointing out the legal aspects which these new services have been bringing along, such as DRM, piracy and legal battles over the majors.
Italian to English translation: Umberto del Giudice