Credit: Don't Fret

One of the buzziest buzzwords in the tech world is “the cloud,” which refers to the practice of storing data remotely on networked servers. The metaphor may be blurry, but the idea’s simple: imagine yourself surrounded by an invisible nebula of data waiting to be accessed anywhere there’s an Internet connection, untethering you from the necessity of accessing your digital stuff via a specific device. Ten years on, the original iPod seems quaint with its five-gigabyte hard drive—and if digital music evolves the way most pundits are predicting, the whole idea of a music player that stores songs will follow suit.

According to proponents of this evolutionary step, we’ll soon move all the files and services we’re used to having on our computers to the cloud, turning our machines into access nodes rather than autonomous data-and-computing stations. You may already be using cloud-based technology without knowing it: checking Gmail on your phone, storing photos on Flickr, pausing a Netflix Instant movie on your TV and resuming it on your laptop. But you probably haven’t moved your music to the cloud yet, not least because there aren’t that many ways to do it.

“The iPod gave us the idea that it would be really nice to carry all of our music around with us,” says staff writer Ryan Singel. “Then the idea became, ‘Well, why should we all be carrying around all of this storage when we should be able to store it in one place and be able to access it from anywhere?’ It’s been a dream for people in Silicon Valley for some time.” Apple and Google haven’t publicly admitted that they’re planning to launch cloud-based music “locker” services, but rumors have been flying since Apple’s late-2009 acquisition of cloud-based streaming service Lala. Operations like mSpot and MP3tunes already offer something similar, though on a modest scale. Singel thinks the growth of fans’ music collections will push them to adopt one of these services. “It’s going to be a long time until you’re going to be able to hold 500 gigabytes or a terabyte of music. There’s weirdly a lot of people now who have 500 gigabytes of music.”

At the end of March, Amazon shocked the tech industry and the music biz alike when it unveiled its game-changing Cloud Drive service. Cloud Drive is a “freemium” service—users get five gigabytes of space on Amazon’s servers for free and can pay to upgrade as far as a terabyte. The Cloud Drive will store any type of file, but Amazon is pushing music harder than any other media. MP3s purchased through Amazon’s online store don’t count toward storage limits, and buying an MP3 album through the store earns users a free yearlong upgrade to 20 GB. The Amazon Cloud Player allows users to stream music in their Cloud Drives either via Web browser or a free app for Android smart phones. At the current rate of a dollar per gigabyte per year to rent space in the Amazon cloud, this could be a cost-effective iPod replacement.

Not only did Amazon come out of nowhere to beat Apple and Google to the music-locker business—using Google’s own Android platform, no less—but they didn’t sign any licensing deals with the major labels to do it. This probably isn’t breaking any laws (more on that in a sec), but it certainly isn’t giving the majors the degree of deference to which they’re accustomed.

Before Amazon’s announcement, the big labels seemed to like the idea of a cloud-based platform. A locker service paired with a digital store (like what Amazon has and Apple is believed to want) would make buying music even easier for consumers—they wouldn’t need to bother downloading songs and transferring them to players. The most efficient way to run a cloud service, which to my knowledge no one is doing yet, would be to stream files from one huge master library; hosting whatever users upload to their lockers is bound to mean millions of redundant copies of popular songs. A master library would also save users the considerable time it’d take to upload any but the scrawniest of collections. “All they really need to do is to store all of the world’s music once,” Singel explains. This hasn’t happened because building such a streaming library isn’t covered by the licenses that allow Amazon and its kin to sell digital music—and getting new licenses will cost plenty.

That’s not the only reason the Cloud Drive launch has apparently turned the majors against the music-locker concept, though. Another irritant is that Amazon hasn’t built in protections against users uploading pirated files—its terms of service favor Amazon customers, but it will host any MP3, no matter its provenance. Google is rumored to be negotiating with several labels, but an April 15 post on respected tech blog All Things Digital quotes an industry source as saying the talks have “gone backwards” since Amazon’s surprise.

It must irk the majors even more that Amazon appears to be on the right side of the law. As a letter from the Amazon music staff to the labels points out, from a legal standpoint copying an MP3 to a Cloud Drive on Amazon’s server is no different from backing it up to an external hard drive. A user playing a song from Amazon’s server isn’t breaking any more laws than he would be by playing it from a shared music library on a home network.

Singel, like most other experts, is sure that the major labels will come around, albeit at the slow pace they usually take with new technologies. (“We’ve all been waiting for the labels to figure it out since Napster,” he says. “The Hollywood guys and the tech guys still don’t get along.”) After that, it’s only the public that needs to come around—a process that should be sped along by the appeal of instant access to weeks’ worth of music at any time and almost any place.

That’s not to say the cloud doesn’t have its drawbacks. Two weeks ago a glitch compromised Amazon’s cloud-based Web Services— which support Foursquare and Reddit, among other sites—prompting ZDNet editor in chief Larry Dignan to ask if the event signaled the “end of cloud innocence.” And at press time Sony’s PlayStation Network, which hosts online multiplayer gaming as well as the cloud-based media services that underpin the console’s entertainment center, had been off­line for almost two weeks after an apparent hacking attack. But when you get down to it, an iPod can break or get stolen—concerns about the safety and reliability of the cloud might not slow people down at all.