Monday, July 11, 2011

My experience with Amazon Cloud Player

As I've posted here before, I'm an avid music fan and collector. A few years ago I decided to go all-digital with my music collection, and since then have mostly refused to buy CDs in favor of digital music online -- mostly from Amazon's (excellent) MP3 store, as well as iTunes. However, this created a new problem: where to keep the music, and how to keep it synced between my various devices -- home laptop, work laptop, work desktop, home desktop, phone, iPad. Lots of people have this problem. My music collection is now more than 50 GB and it's no small feat to keep it synchronized between devices.

For a while I had this crazy scheme where I would only buy new music on my home laptop (the "master" library) which I could sync directly to my phone. From the home laptop I would push new music (using rsync) to my home desktop, which would allow me to listen to it on the stereo at home (via a first-generation Squeezebox player). I would also push it to my desktop at Harvard, so I could listen at work. Once I moved to Google, syncing from home to work became more difficult, although not impossible -- but I could only do so when on the Google VPN, which I can only access on my work laptop. So I modified the aforementioned crazy scheme by syncing from the home laptop to my old desktop machine at Harvard, from which I would pull down new music to my work desktop and laptop. In this way, at least I always knew where the master copy was, and the flow of new data along any edge was always unidirectional, thereby avoiding sync conflicts.

Over time the complexity of this scheme became a real annoyance, especially since I could only buy new music when I was using my home laptop, and syncing to my iPhone and iPad required manually plugging them into that same machine.

So, about a month ago I switched over to using Amazon Cloud Drive, in the hopes that it would fix this problem once and for all. In terms of solving the sync problem, it has been a great success: all of my music now simply lives on Amazon’s servers, and (except for my phone) I don’t need to worry about syncing it to any other devices. For that, Amazon has a Cloud Player app for Android which can pull the music down to my phone directly, without having to stage it on any of my other machines. So I can buy music on the phone, which is immediately available in my Cloud Drive, and I can pull it down to the phone if I want to. (I even bought and downloaded an album to my phone while on an Alaskan Airlines flight, using the in-flight WiFi.) There is an amazing instant-gratification factor here: read about an album on Pitchfork, it’s in your library and on all of your devices in under a minute.

Now, I mostly listen to music at work using the Amazon Cloud Player in my web browser. I don’t even bother syncing a copy to my various machines, though from time to time I do download new music to my home laptop just to have a local backup (in case Amazon goes out of business or something).

Unfortunately, as a user experience goes, I think the web-based Cloud Player has a long way to go:

  • The web interface is terribly slow, especially with a large music collection such as my own. I have more than 12,000 songs and 1,000 albums in the collection, and opening up the Web-based Cloud Player takes a good 20 seconds. The worst part is scrolling through the music’s “album” view: for some damn reason I always get a yellow spinner when paging through the set of albums, and it can take 20-30 seconds to load the album art for each page so I can see what I want to listen to. Plenty of other websites have solved the problem of previewing large numbers of images, so I can’t understand why Amazon’s site is so slow.
  • I rarely have problems with the music playback, though keep in mind I am usually listening from Google’s very well provisioned network. (I also happen to live in Seattle, spitting distance from Amazon HQ, though I’m not sure how much that helps.) However, given that I generally have a few dozen other tabs open on my browser in several windows, I have noticed that the Cloud Player running in the background was inducing additional lag. Now, I only run Cloud Player from a different browser (Safari) dedicated to that purpose.
  • Every 24 hours, the login credentials on the Cloud Player time out and it will stop playback immediately and force me to log in again. This is highly annoying, especially when I’m in the middle of rocking out to Gang Gang Dance. And of course, when I login again, the Cloud Player has forgotten its state so I have to wait 30 seconds to reload my music library and figue out which song I was listening to and fire it up again -- a good minute of rocking-out time lost. I can use Google docs, Gmail, and a bunch of other online services without having to enter my login credentials every day; why can’t Amazon solve this problem? Maybe it’s a licensing issue, but it makes for a painful user experience.
  • When I first signed up, I had to run Amazon’s MP3 uploader to load my music library into their servers. Given that 99% of the music is available on Amazon’s own MP3 store -- and I suspect a good 15% of my library was originally purchased from same said store -- I was surprised that I had to go through this painful step. To add insult to injury, the uploader for some reason capped bandwidth at 500 Kbps or so, meaning it took nearly a week and a half to upload all my music. (Made even worse because the login credentials would time out every day and would not resume uploading until I logged in again.) I should have been able to upload my entire music library to Amazon in less than 20 hours on my 5 Mbps connection from home, so the artificial cap seems ridiculous.
  • Somewhat humorously, when I buy new music from Amazon’s MP3 store, there is a delay before it shows up in my library. I can hit reload and watch each song being loaded into the library, and it seems to take a few seconds for each one to appear. I assumed that adding music from Amazon’s MP3 store to my Cloud Drive would be a matter of creating the S3 equivalent of a symlink, so what the hell is going on here?
Just for the record I have not yet tried Google Music, which is in beta, since I am too lazy to move my music collection over yet again. From what I have seen, the web interface is pretty similar so there's not a good enough reason -- yet -- to switch. I'm curious to see what Apple's iCloud is like, but I really like having my music collection liberated from Apple's DRM.

So, I am somewhat surprised at how bare-bones the Amazon Cloud Player is. Given that this is a web app, you would think there would be all kinds of great features that go beyond what you can do inside of a “closed” app like iTunes. For example, there’s no way to share a link to a song or album in Amazon’s MP3 store with Facebook or Twitter -- I have to go search for the listing on Amazon’s MP3 store by hand, and post that manually. This seems like a lost revenue opportunity for Amazon, since it’s hard to share with my friends online that I’m loving the new Bon Iver album and give them a link to buy it (hey, maybe with a referral discount).

Overall it's awesome to use this service and I love having my music everywhere all at once, and not having to manually maintain a library. If the web player were more sophisticated and responsive it would be a slam dunk.


  1. It is possible that there are legal issues at stake which forces Amazon (and Google's Music Cloud) to make users upload their music and it is likely that a separate copy is stored for each user.

    But, the other issues you mention seem easy enough to fix to make the user experience better.

  2. I wonder why you didn't consider subscription services? Two that I'm familiar with (Spotify & MOG) have all the convenience of cloud-based services while eliminating the hassle of buying and giving you access to an incredibly vast library; the mobile versions enable music to be stored locally to your phone for a while, so you don't have to worry about weak signals while you're roaming. In addition Spotify has perhaps the best streaming performance I've ever seen and a great interface (yes, it's not available in the US yet but MOG is not a bad alternative).

  3. Amazon doesn't have a clue how to build consumer experiences - so none of this is surprising.

  4. Try Grooveshark. The site is a little slow but you don't have to upload music like with Amazon and Google. It also allows you to integrate radio stations into the mix.

  5. 5 Mbps ~= 625 KBps. The 500 KBps upload speed doesn't seem so bad. Many people do have huge MP3 collections with a lot of redundant data. Perhaps they could use some form for data deduplication to reduce the upload pain (they do give you a custom uploader after all).

  6. prmohan - sorry, I meant 500 kilobits/sec, which is pretty awful. This was not from my home machine, either - it was from a machine at Google.

    Anon re: subscription services: I would never use a subscription service to my music collection. That is a great idea for some people but I really want to own all of my music and take it with me whereever I go. This is why I still have thousands of CDs in boxes in my garage, not because I am listening to them but because I think it's important to keep the data somewhere where I can always access it. I would rather pay more to own my music collection outright than have to deal with a subscription service that might disappear. (Same goes with Amazon - I am downloading all of the MP3 files for archival purposes.)

  7. something tells me i will be uploading my music archive to the google music sevice for the next few months — in 12 hours, it has loaded 200 tracks. i have 10,000 tracks!

  8. I just jumped on finding no other alternatives... to say that i am using this because there are no other alternatives is a bad sign for amazon cloud. I think they can improve a lot, otherwise other services will capitalize on frustration like mine. I am playlist crazy and like to star good songs as i listen to the albums and then automatically go to a playlist where I can conveniently listen to the compiled list of starred songs. i think features like this, (ie smart playlists) and features like audiogalaxy's genie would be excellent additions to a service that captures a niche based on how generous their offering is, rather than providing an innovative way of delivering music.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.