The Year of the Cloud

music cloudWe weren’t three days into 2011 when the New Year was dubbed “The Year of the Tablet” by major press outlets (e.g. here and here). While this may turn out to be the case, we are perhaps just as likely to look back on the year in Technology & Entertainment and call 2011 “The Year of the Cloud” (and more specifically, “The Music Cloud”).

Last week Apple joined heavy hitters Amazon and Google in announcing its cloud service, dubbed iCloud. While the consumer market for cloud storage and media streaming services is new (Amazon launched in March, Google’s beta launched in May), these three (huge) players dropping their collective hats in the ring within three months of each other most certainly confirms a shift in how consumers will…ahem…consume music (and really all digital media) in the near future.

Weekly unique visitor data to Amazon and Google’s Cloud Players shows that while usage of the players is modest (and to be fair, Google’s player is not marketed and is invitation only), with about one-quarter of a million users accessing the new music services. The $0.99 promotion of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way album download on May 23rd, however, appears to have been successful in generating activity as Amazon increased its weekly Cloud Player traffic 65% in the last week of the month (though that came with its own set of issues).

weekly uvs to amazon and google cloud players

From a consumer’s perspective (my own), cloud storage makes perfect sense. My music collection not only spans multiple media (CDs, Vinyl, Digital), but also across multiple devices – iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, MacBook, external storage, as well as my work laptop (though I’m likely breaking a rule there). Having one place where I can store my entire music collection, easily (automatically) sync devices, and access my music anywhere is absolutely something of interest to me. Figuring out the best service for my needs, however, is more challenging.

While the overarching premise for all of these services is straightforward–storage and access to files–the execution and fine print reveals that no two are the same (PCMag.com has a nice comparison chart). What’s missing out of the comparison is the dark horse: Spotify.

With over 10 Million users in seven European countries, Spotifty is the leading cloud music service outside of the US. Heralded for its user interface, social networking capabilities, and cross-platform interoperability (here’s a dated, but good feature overview), Spotify has been positioned as the potential iTunes killer in the US, but negotiations with music labels and publishers have delayed a stateside launch.  Interestingly, even without a product (and subsequent marketing) US traffic to Spotify.com has averaged over 100k unique visits a month in the past year – or over 15% of the monthly traffic Amazon saw on its Cloud Player in May.

unique visitors to spotify

A well-funded technology war is probably good for the music consumer. Given the shifting demands in how consumers are listening and buying music (remember life before Pandora?), add the element of operating systems and open/closed application networks (iOS vs. Android), picking the winner (if there is just one) of this war is way too difficult this early in the game.

OK. OK. Sight unseen, I’ll put my money on Spotify, with rumors saying a US launch is “imminent.” After all (David Hasselhoff’s popularity notwithstanding), 10 million European music lovers must be on to something.