Amazon one-ups Apple's iTunes with cloud music service

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Digital retail giant Amazon.com unveiled Amazon Cloud Drive, a new solution enabling consumers to securely store music in the cloud for anytime/anywhere access via Android-based smartphones and tablets as well as PCs and Macs.

All Amazon customers automatically begin with 5 GB of free Cloud Drive storage to upload their digital music library, with any consumer who purchases a full-length Amazon MP3 album upgraded to 20 GB of space--users can store their music in AAC or MP3 formats, with all content uploaded to Cloud Drive in the original bit rate. Customers may cherrypick favorite songs, artists, albums or playlists, or simply upload their entire music library; in addition, all new Amazon MP3 purchases saved directly to Cloud Drive are stored for free, and do not count against the customer's storage quota.

Amazon Cloud Drive includes both a Cloud Player for Android and Cloud Player for Web. The former is bundled into an upgraded edition of the Amazon MP3 application and boasts the full Amazon MP3 Store. Customers can use the app to play music stored on their Cloud Drive and music stored locally on their device--additional features include searching and browsing by artist, album or song, creating playlists and downloading music from Cloud Drive. Cloud Player for Web supports Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari for Mac and Chrome--Amazon MP3 customers can continue to use iTunes and Windows Media Player to add their music to their iPods and MP3 players.

Amazon will store all Cloud Drive files using its Amazon Simple Storage Service. In addition to music, customers may upload photos, videos, documents and related digital media. Beyond the 5 GB of free storage, consumers may purchase additional storage plans starting at $20 per year.

While industry onlookers have long expected Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) to introduce an iTunes cloud solution, the initiative has so far failed to materialize. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported Apple is in talks with the four major record labels to give iTunes users expanded access to their digital music across multiple devices running the computing giant's iOS operating system. The new deal also would offer permanent backup of music purchases in the event the original files are damaged or lost.

Some insiders believe Apple has delayed its cloud service plans to expand the initiative into video streaming. Sources inside Hollywood studios indicate Apple plans to offer "digital shelves" enabling consumers to store movies and television content on the company's servers. Others speculate the holdup is directly related to Apple's new $1 billion server farm in North Carolina--multiple sources have said the servers will make up the backbone of the cloud solution. Speaking last month during Apple's annual shareholder meeting, CFO Peter Oppenheimer stated the facility will serve as a hub for iTunes as well as Apple's MobileMe data sync solution.

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