iCloud How Does It Stack Up Against the Competition?

What is iCloud?

Just as they teased in a press release last week, Apple finally took the wraps off its long-awaited ‘cloud services offering,’ iCloud. While Cupertino may act like theirs is the first such service to market, the reality is, as usual, something else entirely.

Combined with the forthcoming Mac OS X 10.7 Lion and iOS 5, iCloud provided a powerful one-two-three punch of next-generation software previewed Monday at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Coming this fall, here’s a look at what the service is — and isn’t — and why the competition has little to fear (for now).

iCloud music

What is iCloud?

Apple claims ‘iCloud stores your music, photos, apps, calendars, documents and more, and wirelessly pushes them to all your devices — automatically.’ Billing it as ‘the easiest way to manage your content,’ iCloud is more like the now-defunct MobileMe on steroids than the rumor-mongers would have had us believe.

iCloud is made up of a wide range of features, including iTunes in the Cloud — some of which is already active from iOS 4.3 devices for pushing newly purchased apps, iBooks and music to other devices. Photo Stream promises to do the same for photos, while the App Store, iBooks, Documents in the Cloud and Backup apps coming in iOS 5 promise to keep everything in one place and available right away from every new Apple mobile device you purchase.

All of this comes to iOS 5 for free, which is certainly a hard number to compete with. In fact, aside from Mac OS X Lion (coming to the Mac App Store in July for $29), the only paid component Apple introduced today was iTunes Match, a $24.99 per year ‘scan and match’ music service that aims to compete with recent offerings from both Amazon and Google.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at eight current cloud-based storage and music solutions and see what they offer that iCloud doesn’t.

Amazon Cloud Player upload your entire music library

Amazon Cloud Player and Cloud Drive

Positioned mostly as a value-added service for the company’s MP3 music store, Amazon launched their Cloud Player (which also doubles as a Cloud Drive) at the end of March, perhaps sensing that both Google and Apple would be soon nipping at their heels, which was indeed the case.

Amazon Cloud Player gives every customer 5GB of free storage space, with paid options ranging from 20GB for $20 per year, all the way up to 1TB for a cool $1,000 per year. Purchase any MP3 album from Amazon — even one of the e-tailer’s monthly $5 special offers — and they’ll bump you up to 20GB free for one year.

Amazon also cleverly tied their MP3 store into the offering, allowing customers who purchase music from the service to store them free in the cloud — those tracks don’t count against your storage quota. The catch is that you’ll have to opt for the cloud storage or downloading them to your computer — you can’t do both, although you’re free to copy the tracks from Cloud Player to your computer after the purchase.

Amazon MP3 Uploader

Sadly for Apple fans, Amazon’s offerings are a mixed bag. While Cloud Player does include an Adobe AIR-authored uploader tool to transfer existing tracks from Mac OS X and the web-based Cloud Player works just fine, the experience on iOS devices leaves a lot to be desired — but at least it works, which is an improvement from the initial launch where iOS was denied completely. On the flip side, the company’s Amazon MP3 app for Android works like a champ.

On the plus side, Amazon Cloud Player also doubles as Amazon Cloud Drive, which allows you to use the same storage for photos, videos and documents as well as your music collection. Amazon claims that 5GB is ‘enough space to store up to 1,000 songs’ and ‘this space is yours to use as you like and you will never be charged for it.’

Music Beta by Google

Music Beta by Google

By comparison, Google’s latest invitation-only Music Beta is actually far more generous, allowing users to upload 20,000 music tracks for free, at least for now — there are no fixed size restrictions, although the service is strictly for music only and no other kinds of data.

Like Amazon Cloud Player, Google’s offering is likewise friendly to web browsers and Android. Music Beta users can access their entire collection of songs from anywhere with the free Music app for Android, and the browser version also works okay with iOS — although it’s still a less than ideal way to use the service.

Google’s service features Music Manager, a Mac OS X preference pane that controls uploading to the service via iTunes, your Music folder or any other folder of your choosing. Since there are no space restrictions, uploading from iTunes is all or nothing affair — you can’t selectively choose playlists or artists as you can with Amazon’s service. Otherwise, Music Manager offers a bit more control over the upload process, allowing you to control the bandwidth and frequency.

mSpot Music

mSpot Music

Having beaten Amazon and Google to the cloud music storage market by almost a year, mSpot Music also bests them both by offering a free, universal iOS app for accessing your uploaded tracks, with the first 5GB of storage also free. 40GB of storage is also available for $3.99 per month, which comes out to a couple bucks shy of Amazon’s 50GB per year plan.

mSpot claims ‘approximately 4,000 songs’ for the default 5GB of cloud storage, quadrupling Amazon’s estimates by offering the ability to control the upload audio quality with three settings — Good, Better or Best. Needless to say, ‘Best’ offers the highest quality at the expense of storage space, meaning fewer songs. Like Google, mSpot uses a preference pane to control the upload settings, with more extensive web-based control to determine what gets uploaded.

mSpot Music wisely caters to both iOS and Android users with their free mobile apps, while also offering a web-based player for the browser as well. As a side bonus, mSpot will also display lyrics to the songs you play, which none of the other services here can brag about.

MP3tunes

MP3tunes

Despite ongoing litigation with EMI dating back to 2007 over its music locker service, MP3tunes continues to exist, offering 2GB of free music storage with paid options from 20GB ($19.95 per year) all the way up to 200GB ($12.95 per month or $139.95 per year).

While perhaps lesser known than many of the cloud services mentioned here, MP3tunes is certainly more aggressive, offering playback to far more devices — in addition to the usual suspects such as computers and iOS/Android apps, MP3tunes also reaches the AR Infinite Radio and Logitech Squeezebox as well as the popular Roku boxes found in many living rooms. Mobile support also extends to both webOS and Windows Phone 7 devices as well.

MP3tunes was founded by Michael Robertson, the controversial founder and former CEO of MP3.com, so he’s no stranger to lawsuits from major record labels. Launched in early 2005 to offer downloadable music as a competitor to iTunes, MP3tunes has since switched gears to become one of the pioneers of the music locker service — and needless to say, now finds itself dwarfed by far bigger companies offering their services much cheaper, if not for free.

Pogoplug

Pogoplug

Separating itself from the rest of the pack featured here is Pogoplug, who has historically offered a hardware solution for cloud sharing. Plug your existing hard drives into a Pogoplug-enabled device and access them from anywhere, including from iOS and Android smartphones and tablets.

Perhaps sensing the direction of the future, Pogoplug recently introduced a ‘Premium’ edition of their 3.0 software for $29 which enables desktop computers to join in the fun. Install the Pogoplug Premium software on all of your computers and instantly access them from any web browser, including the ability to stream media to UPnP-compatible boxes such as the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. (The free version removes the streaming, but still allows for file sharing, backup and photo access from anywhere.)

Of course, Pogoplug still offers its previous hardware model, with the classic edition available at $99, the new Pogoplug Video for $199 and the Pogoplug Business for $299. Owners of existing Pogoplug-enabled hardware don’t have to pony up $29 for the Premium version — they already get all of that goodness built in.

Dropbox web interface

Dropbox

Popular cloud storage service Dropbox doesn’t specifically cite music as part of its service, but since you can upload most anything by simply dropping it into the Dropbox folder on your computer, you can take your favorite tracks with you and access them from virtually anywhere, including mobile apps for iOS, Android and Blackberry as well as the Mac, Windows and Linux desktop platforms.

The beauty of Dropbox is that your cloud files are available even while offline — everything stored on the Dropbox cloud is also on your hard drive in the Dropbox folder. This not only gives you the security of having those files backed up should some tragedy befall your desktop computer, but you can push the same files to a new computer just by installing the Dropbox software and logging in from there.

On the downside, Dropbox is one of the least generous services available, with a mere 2GB of storage for free, with 50GB ($99 per year) and 100GB ($199 per year) options available. Users can also gain some free storage by recommending the service to their friends and colleagues — every referral who installs the Dropbox software on their computer is good for another 250MB of storage for both of you, up to the cap of 8GB.

Despite all the convenience offered by Dropbox, the service doesn’t feature any music-specific options, meaning you’ll have to manually create folders to organize your music. The mobile Dropbox apps can play them, but without the pretty cover art and other niceties you’d expect from the iPod app, for example.

SugarSync website

SugarSync

While Dropbox may not explicitly cite music as a potential use for its service, competitor SugarSync isn’t shy about touting music as well as photo and video cloud storage for its users. The service hits all of the same beats that Dropbox does in terms of both desktop and mobile clients, but it ties a little differently into your workflow.

Where Dropbox offers one central repository for files you want to sync to the cloud, SugarSync allows you to choose any folder on your hard drive, as well as what they refer to as the ‘Magic Briefcase.’ Added to your Documents folder when you install the SugarSync Manager software on your desktop, Magic Briefcase is the equivalent to a Dropbox folder, where anything placed inside will be automatically synced, perfect for specific files you’d like to keep in the cloud without committing an entire folder to sync.

SugarSync is also a little more generous than Dropbox, offering a free 5GB plan which doesn’t even require a credit card to sign up for, as well as month-to-month and annual plans ranging from 30GB ($4.99 per month or $49.99 per year) to 500GB (at the ‘special introductory price’ of $39.99 per month or $399.99 per year). Multi-user business accounts are also available.

SugarSync Manage Sync Folders

Unfortunately, the same limitation that exists with Dropbox also applies to SugarSync — streamed music tracks will be presented without all of the fancy features and artwork, and playlist management is also missing in action. However, its multi-computer file sync options are top notch, allowing you to sync select folders between computers in a snap — perfect for on-the-go laptop users who prefer a desktop system when at the home or office.

If you do sign up for a free 5GB SugarSync plan, be sure to take a few minutes to complete the ‘Getting Started’ tasks on both your computer and mobile device — each is worth an additional 250MB of storage just for taking a few minutes to get acquainted, and you can nab an extra 500MB for any referrals that install the software as well.

Box.net website

Box.net

Offering cloud-based storage for both personal and business users, Box.net offers a generous 5GB of space for free, with a 25MB file size limit and slick mobile app access via iOS and Android. Paid options are also available, including 25GB for $9.99 per month or 50GB for $19.99 per month.

Unfortunately, Box.net is also more of a cloud ‘storage’ company rather than a cloud ‘service’ company — while you can host your music files on their servers, you’ll be again limited to the same unfriendly media playing that also plagues Dropbox and SugarSync, and certainly videos are also out thanks to Box.net’s restrictive file size limit of only 25MB.

Box also offers a free SimpleShare utility in the Mac App Store for quickly sharing images and other files directly from your desktop to Box.net; otherwise, there’s no Mac OS X client software to install, since transfers take place via your web browser.

Wuala website

Wuala by LaCie

What can you do with 1GB of cloud storage these days? Not much, but that’s exactly where Wuala (pronounced ‘Wha-la’) starts. Brought to you by the kindly hard drive storage makers LaCie, Wuala is also happy to take your money for more storage, starting at $29 per year for 10GB and maxing out at 250GB for $289 per year, with customized business solutions also available.

Wuala touts a much higher level of security and privacy than other companies, which isn’t a bad idea in this post-Sony hacking world. The service isn’t really music-centric at all, but rather focused on cloud storage and sync, backup and versioning as well as sharing and collaboration, similar to what Box.net also offers.

In an interesting twist, Wuala also allows users to up their free storage by trading in unused hard drives from your computer in exchange for more storage space on the service — although they don’t mention if that unused storage has to be in good working condition, since it might be a way to swap out dead hard drives for something else that’s potentially useful.

ZumoDrive website

ZumoDrive

Matching Wuala as the stingiest of all cloud storage services covered here, ZumoDrive also offers a mere 1GB of free storage, although it promises a ‘1GB bonus when you complete the Dojo’ — that is, a quick training to get you up to speed on the service. Paid plans range from 10GB ($2.99 per month) up to 500GB ($79.99 per month).

On a more positive note, ZumoDrive syncs data from Mac, Windows and Linux, making it available on any computer as well as iOS, Android and even webOS devices. ZumoDrive integrates with iTunes for importing playlists without the need to actually download songs to a remote machine — they just stream from the cloud. ZumoDrive can otherwise sync to any folder on your computer, making it comparable to SugarSync, but a bit less useful.

Follow this article’s author, J.R. Bookwalter on Twitter

(Via Mac|Life all.)

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