Spotify is a revolutionary service based upon someone else's idea. The idea itself is simple, but genius. Unlimited access to millions of songs via the internet to play back to your heart's content. The original idea belonged to Shaun Parker with Napster, which I remember being blown away by back in 1999. Unfortunately, it wasn't legal and long before the record companies crushed it (later to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of a courtroom firestorm as a legal competitor to Spotify) I'd gone back to CDs. However the idea was a great one, so Spotify and the consumer owe a lot to Napster, even if it can't easily be condoned.
So whilst Spotify aren't the first, or only, I think they're the best. The original software for PC was a joy and has only ever improved. Music is easy to find and plays instantly, as if from a local file on your PC, even though it's being delivered from thousands of miles away. Organisation of music into playlists is as simple as drag and drop and recent forays into social networking, first with their own network and more recently by hooking into Facebook have delivered music sharing that's as simple as a mouse-click.
I've had an account with Spotify since the day they launched, lured in by the free option, which offered access to the entire library for the cost of listening to an occasional advert. Later, when the adverts got a little too frequent and repetitive, I decided I would be happy to stump up a fiver a month in order to banish the ads and enjoy improved sound quality.
But now they've got me. I've gone premium and hand over ten pounds every month to Spotify. Why? Well, I think it's a bargain. I now have an instant library of eighteen million songs (and counting) to listen to. Not only can I listen on my computer, I can also use the excellent Android application on my phone to stream music to my car stereo over bluetooth. In the bedroom I'm woken to any playlist I choose via the old iPod Touch which lives in the bedside-clock dock since the battery packed up and every where else I use the fantastic iPad app that makes music browsing and discovery an absolute joy! Playlists are instantly synchronised between all these devices, I can see what my friends are listening to and share my playlists with them and when I'm offline, the cached playlists are still available to bring the tunes to me wherever I am.
For a tenner that's a bargain. But there may be another way and it's Amazon this time who are tempting me by tugging at the one lingering doubt that I have about Spotify. If I stop giving them my tenner, or worse, if they go under - all that music is gone. After all, it was never mine. I'm renting it. Hmmm.
I have several thousand Mp3s. It's turned out to be less of a pleasure than owning CDs, managing them, espeically across multiple devices was a pain - that's why I decided to pay for the convenience (and chance to explore) that Spotify offered. But what if I could have all the convenience of Spotify, but with my own music collection?
That's what the Amazon Cloud Player, just launched in the UK sets out to do.
Like Spotify, Amazon give you free, but limited access to the service to draw you in and then if you want to throw everything you have at it, then some money will have to change hands.
So what is the Cloud Player? Put simply, it's an internet digital locker for your music. The free service allows you to upload upto a maximum of two hundred and fifty tracks into your player and then these songs can be arranged into lists by artist, album, genre or whatever and played back to your heart’s content in a very Spotify manner. Again, every device is looked after. From a PC, you can visit the web player, see and organise your music, create and edit playlists and of course listen to and enjoy your tunes. Mobile users are also looked after with apps are available for both Android and IOS (iPhone) and, just like Spotify, you can stream the music over the internet, or cache the music locally for ease of listening offline (or to save your data allowance for the Facebook and Twitter habit!). The big difference is, as the music is yours, those Mp3s that you download can be copied and used freely.
I was slightly disappointed to note that there isn't an app for the iPad yet. Spotify's iPad app really is glorious and will have tempted a lot of users to pay the premium rate to enjoy it. Hopefully one will follow soon. The web page does work however, but it's a bit clunky and many will prefer just to download the app intended for iPhone until Amazon sort themselves out.
Amazon of course want to make some money out of you, so they've gone and neatly integrated their mp3 online store into the Cloud Player. Whenever you buy a song or an album, it's automatically added to the player and doesn't count towards your limit. That means if you only ever use it to listen to music that you bought from Amazon, you'll never have to pay for the premium version of the cloud player. For those that have larger existing mp3 collections that they want to include can pay just over twenty pounds per year for Amazon to host up to two hundred and fifty thousand tracks, which seems pretty reasonable. You don't have to spend hours and hours uploading them either, if you run the application on a PC, Amazon will scan your library and attempt to match it to their own. Any tracks you have that they have will be made available from their own collection. Only the ones they don't recognise will have to be uploaded. In testing the free version, I uploaded two hundred and fifty tracks from various artists and found about sixty were not recognised.
So on paper, if you're not too sure about renting tracks from Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player does sound like the sweet spot between owning your music and enjoying the benefits of streaming and managing multiple music players simply. So what's it like in practise?
Pretty buggy I'm afraid, but it's early days and there is hope. The basics are all there after all. Once all your music is up in the cloud player, it becomes your master copy. If all you ever do is stream from there, it's a simple, but functional media player.
It's once you want to start connecting up multiple devices that a few cracks start to show. I wanted to have a playlist for the car, which would live on my mobile phone. This would be a large list of songs and one that would be updated regularly. On the website, I created the playlist, called it 'Phone' and added twelve songs to it. On the app, which offers a 'Cloud' view (for streaming) and a 'Device' view (cached local copies) the playlist appeared within moments and I was able to download it. I then added a bunch more songs via the website, hit the 'Refresh' button on the phone and precisely nothing happened. Going back to the cloud view, I selected the same playlist and hit download again. This time the phone downloaded the playlist... entirely, again, in duplicate and called it 'Phone (1)'.
This would imply that every time I want to update a playlist, I either have to re-download the whole thing to each device that I want to work offline, or update the playlist locally on each device. Almost as much hassle as if I didn't bother with the Amazon service and managed everything on my laptop! Compared to Spotify, which updates playlists across all the devices automatically, this is a big disappointment.
Other frustrations weren't really functional, just bugs and glitches. For example, when I played back my playlist in the car, having downloaded it, several songs were missing and the app told me I needed to connect to the internet to stream it. I also failed to get the ipad to see the list of songs I'd purchased direct from Amazon. Not a great first impression, but I'm sure these bugs will be stamped out.
On the positive side, each of the apps is well presented, the purchase of songs is handled intuitively and offer good value and if you don't like the player, you can use other apps to play back your songs. The sound quality, whether played back from a downloaded file, or streamed from the cloud is good.
If Amazon can bring their 'Wispersync' technology, that keeps customer's Kindle books on the correct page, whichever device they happen to be reading on to their Cloud Player, I believe they'll have a hit on their hands. But right now, this playlist shortcoming means there's little advantage over your home PC being the master copy and synchronsing out to your devices over a good old fashioned cable.
Me? I'm sticking with Spotify for now and will hope that my tenners will keep them around long enough to enjoy their massive library for years to come.