Weekend tech blog: Amazon's Cloud-y dreams

Amazon makes a "cloud" move that portends bigger battles ahead. Plus, BMW apps for the road, and a way to share the best of the web.

Amazon makes a "cloud" move that portends bigger battles ahead. Plus, BMW apps for the road, and a way to share the best of the web.

Seattle-based Amazon.com brought the "cloud" or cloud-based computing a step closer to the average consumer last week with the debut of the Cloud Drive and the Cloud Player.

In simple terms, Amazon lets you upload your digital music library to Amazon’s media servers, or the Cloud Drive. The Cloud Player lets you play your music on any Internet-connected device wherever you happen to be: a computer, smartphone, or tablet using WiFi or a cell data plan.

Well, on almost any device, but more on that in a moment.

The basic plan allows for 5 gigabytes (GB) of free storage,or about 1,250 MP3 recordings. For larger libraries, Amazon will sell you additional storage on an annual plan: 20gb for $20, 50gb for $50, and $100 for 100gb. For truly humongous collections up to 1 terabyte, the fee will set you back $1,000 annually.

Amazon is also offering a hard-to-refuse offer at launch: 15 additional gigabytes of storage for a year for the price of one digital MP3 album. If you buy music from the Amazon mp3 store, it automatically loads into your account — and does not count against your storage limit. Sweet!

(Personal note: I am now the owner of “1+1 Ok 2” by Marco Matematiko, an 85-cent MP3 album from Amazon’s bargain album bin, which sounds at its most musical like a drum machine mating violently with a balloon. I’m not exactly fond of my purchase, but 15gb free is 15gb free.)

These days, when major companies make this kind of debut splash, the introductory nod usually goes to Apple devices. But not this time. In the smartphone/tablet marketplace dogfight, the Cloud Player is available only to Android users. It’s part of an upgrade to Amazon’s previous free MP3 player app, which now gives users the option of either playing music you've stored on your phone or tapping into your music stored in the cloud.

Some critics speculate the Apple freezeout is because of the competition between the two megacorporations. Whatever the reason, I am not losing sleep waiting for Amazon’s PR department to call back with the answer.

(If you’re an Apple iOS user and really hungry to get into Amazon’s Cloud drive, here’s a method for doing it from gottabemobile.com. It’s not perfect—you’ll be downloading your music to your device instead of streaming it — but it is a way in.)

The Cloud Drive account is accessed on computers by signing into your Amazon account. The user experience is smooth, and the playback on computers and on a smartphone using a cell data plan is quite good. You can create your own folders for your music, One precaution: Streaming music for long periods of time on a smartphone via a data plan can eat heavily into your monthly data allowance. Check your data plan early and often.

While this is being billed as a music player operation, it’s evident that Amazon has more ambitious plans. The Cloud Drive upload page shows designated folders for documents, pictures, and video in addition to music.

As an experiment, I uploaded a video file (mpeg.4 format) to the drive’s video folder and tried playing it. A player app suddenly appeared on my desktop; it wouldn't play my video, but it’s obviously a placeholder for an all-purpose media player to come. Imagine that.

Along with its recently announced free instant video service, its new Android app store, the new Cloud drive/player initiative, and rumors galore about its possible development of a tablet, the tea leaves strongly suggest that Amazon is gearing up to play for the Internet version of Risk on a level playing field with Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

CNN Money has an interesting piece on how Amazon beat Apple and Google to the cloud with its music plan: an intriguing footnote to this story.

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Speaking of streaming . . . in roughly two months, Libox, an Israeli company, will be coming out with updated versions of its free streaming media app. When it appeared about two years ago, Libox won near-universal praise from the tech community for allowing people to easily stream their entire personal media collection everywhere from their local computer: music, videos, and pictures included. The updates will include a much-sought after Android version.

Currently, Libox software is available as a free app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch; Android users can access it from a smartphone browser.

Sometime in June, however, the company will release completely rewritten apps for Apple gear as well as the all-new Android version, according to Libox founder Erez Pilosof. In a phone interview, Pilosof said the new apps, also free, will incorporate some unique features, including the ability to automatically back up music, videos, and photos you access frequently on your phone. In addition, the company will debut a premium cloud backup service (with servers in the U.S.), competitively priced, that will not only be a backup for your local media, including photos and videos you create on the go, but will automatically switch your stream to the cloud if the stream from your computer fails. “It will give the user an amazing solution,” he added.

While cloud streaming has its advantages, loading your media into the cloud is not one of them. An average Libox user has between 50 and 60 gigabytes of digital data, Pilosof noted. Uploading that library could take many hours.

In my experience, it's much more convenient to simply stream your library from your computer, and I've found that Libox handles the playing of that stream well. In addition, high-capacity hard drives are cheap these days. A 2-terabyte external hard drive, for example, can be bought for about $80 and be a more than ample backup unit. And you will pay no digital storage “rent.”

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BMW wants to be known not only for hot cars; it wants to be recognized for hot apps.

Numerous sources have reported that BMW is investing $100 million in startup companies to develop apps that will help drivers navigate their urban environments. As quoted in Computing.co.uk, BMW president Edward Robinson noted, "As urban populations increase, the goal of BMW i Ventures is to develop technology to further the freedom of mobility."

Among the first apps funded by BMW is MyCityWay, designed according to the website, to “help you navigate and explore the world’s cities, like never before." Perhaps. It's basically an index of many services with phone numbers and Google maps. It resembles Yelp but is far less featured and has a different index or service finder.

A Seattle version of MyCityWay is now available, but only for the iPhone (via iTunes). The company’s website says its apps are available on multiple smartphone platforms, but as of this writing the Seattle app is only on a single platform and it isn't even listed on ithe MyCityWay website.

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Does HDTV in 3D have “legs”? Apparently not, according to a recently completed survey of consumers in the U.S., Canada, and the UK by research firm Vision Critical, as reported by TWICE, the consumer electronics journal. Among its findings, only 5 percent of U.S. TV homes have 3D-capable sets. While most surveyed were well aware of the 3D feature, the majority also thought the sets far too pricy for the value it added to their TV viewing.

As quoted in TWICE, Vision Critical senior VP Matt Kleinschmit noted, "There appears to be a significant perceived lack of value with 3D TVs among consumers in all three countries . . . This is not surprising given that many people may have only recently migrated to high-definition TVs, and now they are being asked yet again to upgrade to a new technology.”

A similar sentiment was noted in a recent Crosscut.com blog by this writer.

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Finally, a great add-on for most popular browsers.

I’m frequently and ruthlessly searching the Internet for news and information, and often want to either note it or share it with friends and colleagues. Usually I’ll take several steps to highlight a website URL and copy it into an email and send it to myself, or drop it into a Facebook or Twitter reference.

Then, this week, I found Shareaholic, an add-on or extension that lets you quickly copy an Internet site location (URL) to several services including email, social networking, bookmarking, blogging, and more. You can customize the locations under each list that you want the link copied to. You can also set up a keyboard shortcut to initiate the add-on. It’s simple, elegant, and free.


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