Cloud Amazon is the first major player out of the gate with a cloud-based digital media “locker” service but it’s a fair bet that Apple and probably Google won’t be far behind. The question is: how long can they wait?
Both Apple and Google are reported to be attempting to negotiate licensing deals with the record labels that would allow them to offer cloud-based music storage and streaming services without fear of legal challenge or litigation. But that’s a lengthy process and Amazon’s decision to launch without such licenses may for Apple’s and Google’s hands.
Amazon has taken the position that it doesn’t need no stinking licenses. “Cloud Player is an application that lets customers manage and play their own music. It’s like any number of existing media management applications,” Amazon spokesperson Cat Griffin told reporters. “We do not need a license to make Cloud Player available.” Not surprisingly, not all record labels see it that way, setting up a potential showdown, although perhaps not until the pending case between EMI and MP3Tunes.com is decided first. In any case, we’re likely to have at least three competing music locker services from major online players on the market in fairly short order.
Whatever that ends up meaning for the music industry, I don’t think Amazon’s move — and Apple and Google’s likely response — bodes well for efforts to establish open ecosystems for cloud-based media management such as the UltraViolet initiative in the video industry.
As I noted in a post yesterday, Amazon seems to be following Apple’s initial iTunes playbook by leveraging consumers’ existing media collections to lock consumers into using the Amazon media management platform before it starts emphasizing sales of new content through the platform. In other words, it seems to be trying to build a proprietary, if not quite closed, cloud-based streaming ecosystem. That’s not a good sign for anyone hoping to see Amazon throw its considerable retail heft behind UltraViolet.
Video is different from music, of course. Consumers have been format shifting their music collections for decades, unfettered either by DRM or the DMCA, so Amazon’s legal argument is at least plausible. Not so for video. The video industry has never turned a blind eye to format shifting the way the music industry has and virtually any commercially distributed video, whether on disc or by download, will be DRM protected. At a minimum, any media management software that purported to enable consumers to format-shift their existing video collections to the cloud would need licenses to circumvent the DRM, or make it interoperable. Similarly, any newly acquired DRM-protected video would likely need to be licensed for streaming, even from an authenticated personal cyber-locker, at least until a court clearly says otherwise.
Those different facts are the strongest argument for a retailer to participate in UltraViolet. But they’re in tension with the potential competitive advantages retailers see to creating proprietary cloud-based media management platforms. Apple, of course, has already set itself apart from UltraViolet. Google has yet to support the initiative directly, although it is now a member of the DECE by virtue of its acquisition of Widevine. Wal-mart seems to be betting on Vudu over UltraViolet. And now Amazon seems to be going its own way, too, at least in music (and e-books).
As fine an idea as UltraViolet may be in principle, it could find itself a retail orphan.
Upadate: Another sign that Amazon is unlikely to embrace UltraViolet: It appears quietly to have pulled Lovefilm out of DECE. Though Lovefilm joined the consortium back in 2010, since being fully acquired by Amazon in January, 2011, it has disappeared from the official roster of UltraViolet members.