When Steve Jobs introduced the concept behind the iCloud last month, he contended that having access to your data on any device, anytime, anywhere, was more than just a matter of putting your hard drive in the sky. He pitched it as the next great stage of computing (because understatement is his specialty, of course), since it moved the hub away from the PC and "demoted" the desktop to being just another device.
For those of us who have been trying to negotiate our media holdings through home networks, onto set-top boxes and game machine, and with smartphones and tablets, this is no small thing. Jobs is likely right about the shift to device-centric access.
Personally, I have been waiting for a decade to get much of the content I enjoy most off the damned desktop -- easily one of the worst media consumption situation ever invented. My sense is that part of the enthusiasm we see for tablets reflects some of this pent-up desire to consume media anywhere but at the place we associate with rigid-backed chairs, hands on keyboards, and work. But as I start playing in the cloud myself, I am starting to wonder about a deeper shift in how the means of storage and access ultimately affects our relationship to the media themselves.
To give Apple credit, its iTunes home sharing of libraries on a local network is about as seamless a model as I have seen. Using my desktop PC as home base for my library of music and iTunes film and TV purchases, I can just log into my account from Apple TV, iPad or iPhone when I am at home and get my "Mad Men" collection or Led Zep favorite to play on the home theater or in bed. But of course, the fact that the sharing is tied to my home WiFi network means that I really own unfettered on-demand access to all the media I have purchased in a defined space.
Cloud models change all of that, and ideally should give the media lover ubiquitous access to their own library. The models appearing thus far are a bit different. Apple's iCloud seems to eschew streaming from the cloud and focuses on downloading synchronized data and media to the various devices. I will be interested in seeing how that works and how much back-end management it will take on my part to keep the cloud from raining too much material on my iPad and iPhone.
Google's Music Beta and Amazon's Cloud Drive and Cloud Player are taking a similar, streaming-oriented approach. Amazon is the one I have the best direct experience with for now. At the moment, Google's Music Beta media manager says it has uploaded 600 of my 1,000 or so tunes it found to the service, but still none of them is visible to me in my empty music queue I try to access both on the Web and via an Android Music app.
Amazon still doesn't get the respect it may deserve on the music and video sales fronts. It has an eminently usable cloud music service now that is much more platform-agnostic than the iCloud will be. Amazon's cloud service is also apparently less buggy than Google's. The Web-based app found my iTunes and other music libraries easily and had several hundred of my songs uploaded in a few hours of on and off connectivity. Amazon's 's Cloud Drive is a big hard drive in the sky, but with some extras. It also holds some of my videos, images and documents, some of which are accessible across platforms.
When it comes to music, I found the Amazon service a perfect answer to maintaining my library on storage-challenged devices like my iPad and DROID. The Web app interface even works on the iPad, and quite well. It has a simple player interface and lets me run my familiar playlists. Background play on the iPad is glitchy, but it works especially well on Android, where Amazon has a dedicate MP3 app to access the cloud.
While the record labels seemed upset initially at Amazon and Google's insistence that the locker model didn't require special licensing deals with rights owners, I am not sure the media companies want to step on this model. In the Android iteration of Amazon's Cloud Player, I can use my playlist as a route to purchase in much the same way I can in iTunes. A context menu on any song in the MP3 player from Amazon invites me to shop the store for more from the same artist. If Amazon is smart, the company will push a recommendation engine into this thing as soon as possible. The iTunes Genius recommendations are responsible for hundreds of dollars in track purchases from me.
I am still seeding these respective clouds with my media, so I have no idea yet how they will integrate with my media habits or change them. It seems that lurking within these new models is the prospect of altering our relationship to the media themselves. After all, digital renditions of music, TV and film uncoupled the media from tangible goods. Whatever sense of ownership a user had over their media was deepened by having the ability to shape the experiences and share them.
Does the cloud simply further that process of eliminating tangibility and move our relationship with these media to a different level? I am not sure yet. We didn't really understand the implications of digitizing media until we saw the way consumers embraced and took control of the new tools they now had at hand. Does cloud-based, device-agnostic access to media just extend that or change it in new ways?
But consider the ways in which mobility has allowed us all to better leverage media as identity markers in the culture. We started just a few years ago with ringtones being the media-based personal identifier on phones. Aside from T-shirts, this was one of the rudimentary ways we used media as a public tag of who we are. Now we have music playlists that we can share and show others as emblematic of our tastes and selves. Soon I should be able to make the full range of my media experiences, my film and audio mixes, video libraries, always accessible -- not just to me but to whomever I want. Imagine the next obvious step, when the current AirPlay functionality in iOS becomes ubiquitous and cross-platform compatible. Then my media creations (playlists, mash-ups, etc.) can be shared on anyone's screens.
"Look at this cool clip," you can say and zap it to a friend's desktop. Did you see last night's episode of "Glee"? Have you heard this band? Check out the mash-up I just made. Zap all of it to a nearby TV, PC or tablet. The mobile phone becomes a different kind of remote control -- a waypoint for your media identity and a personal broadcaster onto anyone else's screen.
There may be something big up there in the cloud that has to do with liberating our media from one of its last remaining shackles.