How the Amazon Cloud Player Works

With each passing generation, music is becoming more portable.
With each passing generation, music is becoming more portable.
Darrin Klimek/Thinkstock

On July 1, 1979, Sony Corporation began selling the world's first personal stereo device, the Walkman. The original Walkman was a handheld, battery-powered cassette player with stereo headphones. As simple as it was, the device revolutionized the way people listened to music. If you had a Walkman, you could take your favorite tunes with you anywhere in a small, lightweight package. For several years, the brand name Walkman was as popular as the name iPod today, being as synonymous with personal stereos as Kleenex is to facial tissue.

As technology progressed, so did the storage capacity of the media used in personal stereos. Audio cassettes only held up to two hours of music, and CDs about an hour and a half. With the invention of new digital file formats like MP3, the next logical step for personal stereos was storing and playing music as digital files the same way you would on a computer hard drive. In 2001, Apple released just such a device: the iPod. In its first ten years, iPod models went from 5 GB to 160 GB in capacity, letting you store days worth of music on a single, small device.

While personal stereo capacities have increased, they still have finite storage space. Some manufacturers have produced players that use removable media such as SD cards. This eliminates the need to repeatedly upload and erase files; you just switch out the card when you want different music. Unfortunately, the cards, like iPods, can still only store so much at one time.

Now imagine that you could store all the music you have now, plus all the music you'll ever buy, as MP3 files, and that you'd never have to worry about whether you have enough space to store your whole collection. It's like having an iPod with an infinite amount of storage space. You'd never had to remove old files just so you can add new ones.

Cloud computing is making such seemingly infinite storage a reality for all kinds of computing uses. The Amazon Cloud Player is focusing that cloud power for Internet-connected personal stereos. The Amazon Cloud Player lets you lease disk space from Amazon's cloud to store your music and other files and to access them from anywhere. The first 5 GB of storage is free, and mobile devices with the Amazon MP3 Player can stream music online so you can listen to it straight from the Internet instead of downloading it to your device.

This article describes how Amazon Cloud Player works, including the Amazon Cloud Drive powering it, and some of the challenges Amazon is facing in offering its downloadable MP3s and streaming services from cloud storage.

 

 

 

The Amazon Cloud: Virtually Unlimited Storage

Amazon.com has turned its massive computing resources into a revenue stream with Amazon Web Services.
Amazon.com has turned its massive computing resources into a revenue stream with Amazon Web Services.
Amazon.com, Inc.

In its first decade, Amazon grew from a Seattle-based startup in Jeff Bezos' garage to become the international benchmark of e-commerce success. In that time, Amazon devoted entire divisions of its growing company to developing the computing infrastructure behind the website, including massive storage services. In 2006, Amazon turned that company asset into a new revenue source by launching Amazon Web Services [source: Amazon].

Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers businesses an alternative to investing thousands of dollars in computer hardware and staff to run it. With AWS, those businesses can store data and launch server computers in a cloud computing environment, and only pay for what they use. Our article "How Cloud Computing Works" explains that a cloud is a network of computer resources available to perform tasks both large and small.

While AWS has many services that are useful to the business world, those services may not be very useful to the average Amazon user. Using the power of those same cloud resources, though, Amazon has developed new products you can use for both play and work. The Amazon Cloud Drive is the storage service behind those products. With the Cloud Drive, you can upload files to the cloud and organize them via a user-friendly interface. In addition, you can download those files again anywhere you're able to log in to Amazon.com. It's like having a USB flash drive that's accessible from anywhere on the Internet.

Amazon Cloud Drive is available to any Amazon.com user with a valid billing address. The only software you'll need to use your Cloud Drive is a Web browser running the popular, free Adobe Flash software. Then, while you're signed in at Amazon.com, the "Your Digital Items" menu in the upper right of the Amazon page structure gives you access the Cloud Drive and related services. The first 5 GB of storage is free, and there are tiers of annual fees to upgrade your storage ranging from $20 per year for 20 GB (about $1.70 per month) to $1,000 per year for 1000 GB (about $83.50 per month) [source: Amazon].

Amazon Cloud Drive isn't without its competition, as you'll see later in this article. For now, though, let's look at the application Amazon has developed to deliver music from the Cloud Drive to your ears: the Amazon Cloud Player.

Amazon Cloud Player Requirements

You can play music files from your Amazon Cloud Drive using either the Amazon Cloud Player Web application or Amazon MP3 Player software. We'll look at the Amazon MP3 Player later when we explore how you can listen to your music from your mobile device. First, though, let's look at the Amazon Cloud Player which lets you upload, organize and play the music files on your Cloud Drive.

To use the Amazon Cloud Player Web application, you'll need the following:

  • An Amazon account
  • A valid billing address in your Amazon account settings -- The billing address requirement applies even if you're only using the 5 GB of free storage. If you decide to upgrade to have more storage, you'll also need to add a form of payment to your Amazon account settings, such as a credit card.
  • A supported Web browser -- Supported browsers as of this writing include Internet Explorer 8 and up, Firefox 3.5 and up, Chrome, and Safari.
  • Adobe Flash Player -- Your browser might already include Flash Player software. Otherwise, the Amazon Cloud Player will prompt you to download and install it from Adobe.com [source: Amazon].

Once you've met these requirements, your next step is to ensure any files you want to upload and play in the Cloud Player are in one of the player's supported file formats. You can store any files you want on your Cloud Drive, but the Cloud Player can only play files in one of two formats: the widely used MP3 format (with filenames ending in .mp3) and the AAC format used by Apple iTunes software (with filenames ending in .m4a) [source: Amazon].

One of the reasons Amazon is using these files formats is because it doesn't play music that's protected by digital rights management (DRM). DRM protection means that the businesses that distributed those files have encoded them so they're only readable by a specific software application. For example, if your purchase music from Apple's iTunes Store, you can only play those files in iTunes software, and only on computers you've registered with Apple. If you upload DRM-encoded files to your Amazon Cloud Drive, the Cloud Player will be unable to play them. Later, we'll take a closer look at how Amazon handles DRM.

Now that you're versed on Amazon Cloud Player requirements, let's get started!

Getting Started with the Amazon Cloud Player

You'll encounter this screen the first time you open the Amazon Cloud Player.
You'll encounter this screen the first time you open the Amazon Cloud Player.
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks.com
Here's what you'll see the first time you open the Amazon Cloud Player, before you load any music on your Cloud Drive. Here's what you'll see the first time you open the Amazon Cloud Player, before you load any music on your Cloud Drive.
Here's what you'll see the first time you open the Amazon Cloud Player, before you load any music on your Cloud Drive.
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks.com

To open the Amazon Cloud Player, start by going to Amazon.com and signing in to your account. Then, hover your mouse over "Your Digital Items" in the upper right, and click "Your Cloud Drive" from the drop-down menu. If you have trouble with the menu, you can also click "Your Digital Items," find the Cloud Player section, and click "Your Cloud Drive Music." Amazon might ask you for your password, even if you're signed in, as an added security measure.

 The first time Amazon opens your Cloud Player, it will ask you to accept the terms of service and confirm you're human by answering a CAPTCHA security question. Once you've done this, Amazon takes you to the Cloud Player Web interface.

The Amazon Cloud Player has a look and feel similar to other popular media player software. Features include an interactive list of tracks, categories and playlists from a navigation menu at the upper left and large pause, play and other control buttons in the lower left.

Now that you've launched your Amazon Cloud Player, let's take a tour through its features for uploading, purchasing and managing your music.

Uploading Music to Play in the Amazon Cloud Player

When you first open the Amazon MP3 Uploader, the software identifies MP3s on your computer that aren't in your Amazon Cloud Drive.
When you first open the Amazon MP3 Uploader, the software identifies MP3s on your computer that aren't in your Amazon Cloud Drive.
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks.com

As described earlier, the Amazon Cloud Player can play DRM-free files in either MP3 or AAC format. Once you have files ready to upload, open the Amazon Cloud Player Web interface, click the "Upload to your Cloud Drive" button in the upper left. When you click this button, Amazon will present one of two options:

  • Option 1: If you have the Amazon MP3 Uploader installed on your computer, the upload button automatically launches that software. If you haven't installed the MP3 Uploader, and you're using one of the supported operating systems, the Cloud Player will prompt you to download and install it. Amazon supports the MP3 Uploader on the following operating systems: Windows versions XP, Vista and 7, and Mac OS X versions that run on Intel-based Mac hardware.
  • Option 2: If you're using an operating system for which the Amazon MP3 Uploader isn't available, such as Linux, the upload button opens a warning indicating that you'll need to use the Cloud Drive interface to upload your files. You can use the link from that warning message to open the Cloud Drive, or you can return to the main Amazon.com page, click "Your Digital Items," and select "Your Cloud Drive Files." In the Cloud Drive interface, use the "Upload Files" button to select and upload files from your computer.

Most people will probably encounter Option 1 above -- using the Amazon MP3 Uploader. Each time you open the MP3 Uploader, the software scans your computer to find any MP3 or AAC files you haven't uploaded to your Cloud Drive. The uploader also shows a summary at the bottom of the remaining amount of storage you have available on the Cloud Drive and the amount of storage that would be used if you upload everything selected.

You can use the plus boxes to expand each item shown in the list, and you can check and uncheck the boxes to change your selections of what to upload. If you want to upload files that aren't in the list, click the "browse for more music" link above the list. After you've made your selections in the MP3 uploader, click the "Start upload" button.

While you wait for your files to upload, progress is monitored at the bottom of the uploader window. The software constantly calculates how much time remains for it to finish uploading your selected tracks. You can pause and resume the upload at any time during the process. When your upload is complete, go back to the Amazon Cloud Player in your Web browser and click the "Latest Uploads" to see the new tracks listed.

Next, let's look at another way to fill your Cloud Drive with your favorite tunes: purchasing MP3s directly from Amazon.

Purchasing Music from the Amazon MP3 Store

When you shop for MP3s at Amazon.com, you can select individual tracks or purchase an entire album.
When you shop for MP3s at Amazon.com, you can select individual tracks or purchase an entire album.
Amazon.com

Amazon has more than 15 million songs available for purchase as MP3 files. You can purchase entire albums for as little as $5 and individual tracks for around $0.99. One thing that sets Amazon apart in digital music sales is that it does not encode its music with digital rights management (DRM) protection. This means that after you purchase and download each track, you're not limited to playing it with Amazon's software. In fact, you can play these files on any hardware or software designed to play MP3s. If this sounds like it might be controversial, you're right; we'll examine that controversy later in this article.

You can shop for MP3s at Amazon as you would anything else you might want to buy there. To focus your search, select "MP3 Downloads" from the "Search" drop-down list at the top of the page at Amazon.com. When you see an album or track you want to buy, click the "Buy MP3" button for that album or track. Amazon will ask you to confirm each purchase (with the option to turn off such confirmations).

When you make your purchase, one of two things will happen. By default, your browser will begin downloading your new MP3s to your computer. However, if you have signed up to use an Amazon Cloud Drive, Amazon gives you the option of saving those MP3s to your Cloud Drive. As a bonus, the MP3s you buy from Amazon won't deduct from your available space on the Cloud Drive! You choose whether to download MP3s or save them to your Cloud Drive by updating your Amazon MP3 purchase settings. To change these settings, click "Your Account" in the upper right at Amazon.com, and click "Your Amazon MP3 Settings" from the "Digital Content" section of the page.

Whether you download your new MP3 files immediately or later from your Amazon Cloud Player, Amazon gives you two ways to download. One option is to use your Web browser's built-in downloader, saving the MP3 files wherever your browser saves other downloads. The other options is to install and use the Amazon MP3 Downloader software for your operating system. The MP3 Downloader can automatically import your music to iTunes or Windows Media Player after the download, saving you the extra step of importing them later.

If you've configured your Amazon account to save your MP3s to your Cloud Drive, you'll find the new tracks in the "Latest Uploads" playlist in the Amazon Cloud Player. You can manage your purchases and downloads together and mix them into your own playlists. Next, let's explore the ways you can play your music from the cloud.

Playing Your Music from the Amazon Cloud

The Amazon MP3 Player is available for mobile devices like this one running Android.
The Amazon MP3 Player is available for mobile devices like this one running Android.
Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks.com

So far, you've learned how to stock your Amazon Cloud Drive with your favorite tunes. You've also discovered that you can download and play music files purchased from Amazon on any MP3 music player. In the introduction, though, we contemplated the problem of having limited storage capacity on computers and personal stereos. Amazon has been able to address this problem by enabling you stream media from your Cloud Drive rather than download it permanently to every device you use. This has opened up more flexibility than ever for accessing and playing the music you love.

We've already explored one application that can stream your music: the Amazon Cloud Player. If you have a Web browser that meets the Cloud Player's requirements, you can play your music as streaming audio right there in your browser. There's no need to download the music or install a special player. You can also create your own playlists and use the interface to select tracks to add to each playlist. So, unlike streaming Internet radio services like Pandora, you have total control over what song's coming up next.

The other application that really shows off the power of music in the cloud is the free Amazon MP3 Player, available as an application for your computer and a mobile app for Android devices via Google's Android Market. Once installed on your Android smartphone, tablet or personal stereo, you can use the Amazon MP3 Player to access all the music from your Cloud Drive. As long as your device has an Internet connection (cellular or Wi-Fi), you can sign in and stream your music straight from Amazon. Instantly, you're the DJ for your own private Internet radio station!

So what if your personal stereo isn't an Android device? Sorry, iPhone users, there's no app for that! As of this writing, it's too soon to tell when, if ever, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch users will be able to download or stream their music from an Amazon Cloud Drive. This may be in part because of the software's use of Adobe Flash, which is infamously unsupported on Apple's mobile devices [source: Chen]. There's some good news for BlackBerry and Palm users, though: You can still use your devices to purchase and download MP3s from Amazon even though streaming playback isn't currently available [source: Amazon].

We've played through lots of features and breakthroughs associated with the Amazon Cloud Player. Next, though, we'll survey the challenges facing Amazon, its cloud technology and the Amazon Cloud Player experience.

Challenges for the Amazon Cloud Player

Challenges for the Amazon Cloud Player range from its playback quality and availability on certain devices to its legal implications. Perhaps the most obvious challenge is that the entire experience is closely dependant on the speed of your Internet connection. Speed can affect upload and download times and how well your computer or mobile device can stream each track you play. In addition, if your Internet service provider or mobile phone service places caps on how much bandwidth you can use in a month, your playback could be cut short. See our article "How Streaming Video and Audio Work" for more about how your Internet connection affects streaming services like the Amazon Cloud Player.

Another challenge to the quality of playback in the Amazon Cloud Player is the limited formats the software supports. Both the MP3 and AAC formats are lossy compressed files. Lossy means that some of the digital audio data that forms the music is lost when compressing the file into that format. This keeps the music files small and easily portable, with a high enough quality that most listeners can enjoy them on the go. Consequently, it also means that while an MP3 album from Amazon may be cheaper than a CD, you aren't purchasing a copy that's in the CD's original high, lossless quality.

Though the Amazon Cloud Player is generating a lot of buzz, some other companies present some competition. Dropbox, for example, is a service similar to the Amazon Cloud Drive. Dropbox offers 2GB of storage for free, 50 GB for about $10 per month, and 100 GB for about $20 per month. In addition, software to accesses and play streaming music from Dropbox has already been developed, such as the Dropbox Audio Player for Google Chrome. If Dropbox could support such software for multiple browsers and mobile devices, including the iPhone, it could pose a threat to the Amazon Cloud Player.

All other challenges aside, the most publicized issue for Amazon Cloud Player is its legal liability in selling and streaming music that isn't protected by DRM. As a Cloud Player user, you're the only person who can access and play your files. You can also download those files anywhere and use them in any MP3 player. Unfortunately, this means Amazon isn't attempting to limit whether you redistribute those files in violation with its terms of service. As of this writing, music producers and distributors are raising objections because Amazon did not negotiate licenses for streaming services. Both sides are weighing their legal rights, with Amazon ready to defend its terms of agreement and its customers' rights to access and use their digital purchases anywhere, anytime [sources: Pachal, Asharya, Musil].

The Amazon Cloud Player hit the market as a unique hybrid of cloud services and streaming audio. Its flexible features could completely change the standard of portability for personal stereos. Fast forward to the next page for lots more information about the Amazon Cloud Player.

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More Great Links

Sources

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