The battle for your cloud computing business is heating up.
On Monday, Apple announced its new iCloud service, a mostly-free service which will replace the paid functions of Apple's previous cloud service, MobileMe.
Apple is offering users of its various products the opportunity to store their various documents and photos remotely, so that they can be accessed by any of the customer's devices -- iPhones, iPads, Mac notebooks and desktops -- anywhere.
The biggest part of this announcement for many consumers, and the one part of iCloud which is available immediately, is the music service. Customers who use Apple's iTunes store can now access the music they've purchased from iTunes across their different devices. And for $24.95 a year more, the new iTunes Match service will allow customers to access all of their music -- such as tracks that have been "ripped" from traditional CDs or purchased from some source other than iTunes. In fact, if the track exists in iTunes' library, iTunes will recognize it and substitute its own high-quality version, saving users the time and trouble of actually uploading the song and potentially improving quality.
Meanwhile, Amazon has already introduced its own Cloud Player. Users can upload their own tracks to the cloud, and any music they purchase from Amazon will be stored there as well. In fact, music purchased from Amazon doesn't count against the user's storage limit.
Google has a beta version of something called, naturally, Google Music. While Google doesn't have a music store, it will let you upload tracks and then access them from other devices.
This illustrates the role that some of the big players' cloud services are playing right now: loss leader. It's just like a grocery store selling some staple item at a money-losing price, knowing that most people, having arrived to take advantage of the sale item, will end up doing the rest of their grocery shopping at the same time, more than making up for whatever the store lost on the sale item. Sure, you'll get a few people who buy just the sale items and then move on to the next store, but not enough to hurt the overall bottom line.
It costs a lot of money for a company like Apple or Amazon or Google to host a server farm for cloud storage. Those cloud services are being given away for next to nothing, but it's not due to generosity. Apple wants to keep you in its ecosystem, using iTunes and buying iPhones and iPads. Amazon wants you to use its music store. Microsoft, which offers cloud storage through its Skydrive service, would like you to use Bing and Office and Windows Phone 7. Google would be rather pleased if you bought an Android-powered smartphone or tablet and used that to listen to music.
The Tennessee Technology Center at Shelbyville has a terrific blog post comparing iCloud to Skydrive. Go to ttcshelbyville.wordpress.com to read it. But TTC is wrong about one thing. The blog post says that Apple should offer apps for Android phones to allow their users to access iCloud. I don't think that will happen, because iCloud, by its very nature, is intended to push the customer towards using Apple products. If you've already got an iPhone, Apple would like you to try an iPad, or a MacBook, or an iMac. Apple does have a version of iTunes for Windows, of course, and has had one for several years. But I'm guessing the company considers it a necessary evil due to the predominance of Windows machines. Apple has no incentive, right now, to throw the same kind of bone to Android or Windows Phone.
Apple reportedly worked with the major record labels on its service. Those same labels are said to be less than thrilled about the way in which the Amazon and Google services work and consider them an invitation to piracy. Amazon contends, and I think many users would agree, that Amazon Cloud Player is just a way to allow people more flexibility in using and enjoying the legally-purchased tracks they've paid for.
It remains to be seen whether the record labels will be able to successfully challenge Amazon's service in court.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.