Commentary

A New Episode In The Intergalactic Battle Of The Cloud

Amazon announced its Cloud Drive service yesterday -- a "locker" in the ether that will permit users to store and retrieve 5 gigabytes of digital media such as music and videos for free. More storage is available for a fee, or after you purchase an "album" from Amazon.com.

Consumers can upload the media on their personal drives to Amazon's servers. It will be played back on the Amazon Cloud Player in any Web browser or through an app in smartphones using the Android OS. The service is not compatible with Apple's operating systems, although it will play back songs purchased in iTunes.

Lots of bytes are being written on the looming battle for this place in space among Amazon, Apple and Google. The latter two are said to be working furiously on competitive products. Both, of course, already have their heads in the cumuli -- Apple with MobileMe; Google with its Docs and other software with collaborative capabilities.

The Wall Street Journal's lede, in fact, makes the near future sound like it might make for an epic battle-for-the-future-of-the-cosmos movie: "Technology titans are racing to deliver music and other digital files from online storehouses, with Amazon.com Inc. grabbing the inside track ...."

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Scott Briscoe, who writes a digital marketing blog, wonders "how this will impact the many startups in the space, namely the likes of mSpot , MP3Tunes , Maestro.fm, Orb, MiMedia and eSnips (not to mention the yet-to-launch Beyond Oblivion, which has raised close to $90 million from News Corp and others)." Not well, he understandably concludes.

It reminds me of what Tim Wu tells us in his book, The Master Switch. We would like to believe that the Internet has changed everything we know about how information is disseminated, that "ours is a time without precedent, outside history" because information "zips around the nation and around the globe with the speed of light, more or less at the will of anyone who would send it."

For free, of course. And that has been, by and large, the case.

But, Wu warns, "history show a typical progression of information technologies from somebody's hobby to somebody's industry; from jury-rigged contraptions [I think he means jerry-rigged, although I'm guessing some juries have indeed been bought here and there] to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel -- from open to closed system."

In other words, as sure as there will be another "Transformers," there will be titans duking it out for dominance of our wetwear. And, of course, looking to get paid for their efforts. One need look no further than the erection of the New York Times' long-anticipated pay wall this week. Several Times reporters, smelling a viable pension in their own digital futures, tweeted this story that ran in The Onion: "NYTimes.com's Plan To Charge People Money For Consuming Goods, Services Called Bold Business Move."

The piece facetiously quotes a media analyst as saying, "To ask NYTimes.com's 33 million unique monthly visitors to switch to a cash-for-manufactured-goods-based model from the standard everything-online-should-be-free-for-reasons-nobody-can-really-explain-based model is pretty fearless. It's almost as if The New York Times is equating itself with a business trying to function in a capitalistic society."

One of the questions raised about the Amazon service is how and whether content creators, and their corporate curators, will be paid. Amazon has decided that it does not need to cut licensing deals with the record labels, a move that Sony, for one, says that it is "disappointed" about. One would guess that this question will keep a phalanx of attorneys in their Guccis for the foreseeable future.

But I do wonder how all this will shake out on the consumer side, regarding both the content itself and the technology. Fogies like me have our affinity for certain information brands. As frustrating as the Times may sometimes be -- and you've no idea how frustrating it can be to this commentator -- I believe it's the best newsgathering operation we have and will pay whatever it takes for access to it.

But younger fogies who have grown up expecting that the sum of the parts -- which is accomplished by a Google or Bing or Yahoo search -- is greater than the whole of any of them individually may not be nearly as attached to particular source. Information brands that remove themselves from the search-engine cosmos, or who make their pay walls unduly onerous in terms of fees or access have, I suspect, suicidal tendencies.

As far as the technology goes, whoever makes uploading and retrieving the information seamless, idiot-proof and cheap will win. No one, including Apple, has come close.

I've paid for Apple's MobileMe for years thinking it must be more robust, capable and intuitive than it actually is. And I've been trying to restore my email In Box, which mysteriously vaporized under the weight of 30,000 or so items, since Saturday. It's backed up on a hard drive through Apple's Time Machine, and in the cloud through Mozy. Pure anguish using both. Overnight, Time Machine restored all of 65 files. And have you ever tried to view a show using TiVo transfer, or attempted to make a DVD out of a show you've digitally recorded?

It's almost enough to make you want to crawl in a corner and read a newspaper.

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