When it comes to the distribution of digital entertainment, the planet has only two superpowers. One, of course, is Apple. The other is Amazon.com, which made headlines in the tech world on March 29 with two new Web-based services.
Amazon Cloud Drive is a "personal disk drive in the cloud" that lets you store up to 5 gigabytes of photos, music, documents and other files, with the option to pay for more capacity. And Amazon Cloud Player is a music player available in a browser-based version and one for Android smart phones that can stream tunes directly to a computer or handset.
Those songs you stream can be MP3s that you've uploaded to your Cloud Drive. But they can also include ones you purchase from Amazon.com. In fact, when you buy music, you can choose to transfer it instantly to your Cloud Drive rather than downloading it to your computer.
At first blush, there's nothing all that world-changing about Amazon's announcements. Plenty of companies already dole out gigabytes of online storage for free, and it's long been possible to upload music files you've purchased as long as they're not copy-protected and then stream them back to computers and other devices. All Amazon's new services do is make the process quicker and simpler.
But by mashing up streaming music and online storage, Amazon performed the technological equivalent of mixing chocolate and peanut butter: it proved that two great tastes can taste even better together. It also rattled the music industry, which isn't so sure that the company has the right to deposit the songs it sells in an online drive rather than forcing buyers to download them.
It's not startling that Amazon is the first major music seller to let customers plunk purchased tracks directly into a Web drive. Movies you buy from its video-on-demand service, for instance, already stay on Amazon's servers, so they're safe and sound even if your hard disk crashes. And Kindle e-books automatically get shelved in an online archive, so you can download them to a Kindle e-reader, smart phone or computer or all of the above.
Persistent rumors say that Apple is planning to use the humongous data center it's built in North Carolina for as-yet-unannounced streaming services that might be along the same lines as those from Amazon. For now, though, it sells most of its offerings as old-fashioned downloads, which are harder to manage than files that stay on the Net. (One notable exception is the new Apple TV, which has no local storage of its own.)
Amazon's approach feels closer to the future than Apple's. Back in the days when most people owned one computer and kept all of their digital belongings on it, storing all your content locally might have made sense at least as long as you had your act together and did regular backups. Today, though, many of us have multiple computers, smart phones, tablets and even Internet-connected TVs. We don't want the entertainment we own to be readily available on one gadget. We want it to be accessible on all of them. Keeping it on the Internet makes that possible.
True, local storage isn't going away anytime soon. For one thing, hard drives retain a giant cost advantage over their cloud-based counterpart: you can buy a 1-TB hard disk for under $100. Storing the same amount of stuff on an Amazon Cloud Drive will cost you $1,000 per year. But the cost of online storage should come down over time. And Amazon doesn't count music you buy and store against your storage quotient, which makes sense: it only needs to keep one copy of a song even if a gazillion people purchase it.