The iCloud vs. the us-cloud

Cloud Steve Jobs himself, back at least temporarily from medical leave, will take the stage Monday to keynote Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, where he’ll officially unveil Apple’s new iCloud service. According to numerous leaks, Apple has inked deals with all four major music distributors allowing it to launch a fully licensed, cloud-based system in which music is stored remotely and can be accessed from any iTunes-enabled device.

The news will surely be seen as a blow to Amazon and Google, each of which recently launched similar cloud-based music services and an effort to get a jump on Apple. Unlike Apple’s service, however, the Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music Beta services were launched without licenses from the labels. Instead, they rely on users’ presumed right to rip their own collections to the cloud for storage and playback, which of course requires users to go through the laborious process of uploading all of their tracks individually.

It also requires Amazon and Google to store individual user’s collections separately.

Apple’s service, in contrast, reportedly will automatically mirror users’ collections in the cloud after scanning their hard drives for music files. Metadata from those files will then be matched against a single database of licensed tracks maintained by Apple. Low-bit rate tracks on a user’s hard drive will even become high-bit rate tracks in the cloud since those will be the only kind Apple has stored.

Nor is Google able to sell new tracks to users of Google Music Beta, since it does not currently have retail licenses from the labels, whereas Apple does and can. Amazon does have retail licenses to sell music downloads, but whether those licenses also permit it to sell downloads directly into users’ cloud-based music lockers seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

Now that Apple has gotten the labels over the hump, of course, similar licensing deals could soon be available to Amazon and Google as well, although the labels could also drag their feet out of pique over the unlicensed launches. If history is any guide, moreover, Apple will probably execute better anywhere and iCloud will be more elegant and easier to use than either Amazon Cloud Player or Google Music.

If I were running Apple, however, I’d be more worried about Facebook than either Amazon or Google.

On the same day Jobs is unveiling iCloud, Facebook and TF1 Vision, the online VOD service owned by French TV network TF1, will unveil a “social” VOD application, according to French language reports. Though details are sketchy (and in French), users apparently will be able to rent movies to watch directly from Facebook. In the case of TF1, however, they will also be able to set up joint sessions to watch a movie together with their Facebook friends.

A similar service is being offered in France by VOD portal MySkreen.

Time Warner, meanwhile, acknowledged last month that it is developing its a cloud-based media storage platform based on the Flixster social media network it recently acquired that will enable users to “share” Warner Bros. content with friends, including their own DVD collections. While those reports do not mention a Facebook connection, Flixster already managers the Warner Bros. movie apps on Facebook, so it’s not out of the question that the service will be integrated with Facebook.

For its part, Facebook is reportedly in talks with several online music services, including Spotify, to develop an app to let users listen to their friends’ music. The discussions are apparently part of a broader effort by Facebook to establish the massive social network as a media-sharing hub.

Here’s Apple’s problem: It sucks at social. While it’s made some half-hearted efforts to add a social layer to iTunes social is just really part of Apple’s DNA. It’s too unpredictable, too user-driven ever to square with Apple’s tight tolerances. A planned integration of Apple’s Ping service with Facebook fell apart acrimoniously last year and since then Apple has done very little in the social networking area.

Should Facebook succeed in making social networking and authorized content sharing an integral part of the cloud media experience, however, it could pose a serious challenge to Apple’s dominance. Facebook doesn’t need to be particularly good at the media business to have a significant impact. It can work with partners like Spotify and TF1 to handle that end of it. Facebook just needs to provide the platform and perhaps the payment system through Facebook credits.

Unlike Google and Amazon, in other words, Facebook doesn’t need to compete with Apple on Apple’s turf to be successful. If social becomes an important piece of the cloud media business, however, Apple will need to figure out how to compete on Facebook’s turf. And so far, it has shown no aptitude for that.