Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Amazon's New Service

Like everyone else, today I saw Amazon was starting up a new cloud music system. It's like iTunes, except your songs never actually get to your machine!

I hate this cloud shit. But maybe not for the reasons you might expect.

My problem isn't with "cloud" systems, believe it or not. My problem is with the systems Amazon and Google and Microsoft call "cloud" systems, which really aren't cloud systems at all.

A cloud is fundamentally a giant misty whatever of nebulous structure. "Cloud" meaning "web-accessible centralized server" doesn't make any goddamn sense. I know this is a lost battle, but I'll tell you what a cloud is:

YouTube is a cloud.

A barely-structured riot of always-available videos. YouTube is what "cloud" should mean.

Sure, there are users. Sure, people have favorites and can privately share things. But the structure is not rigid. Users can and will do almost anything: most of the structure is built by users, not by YouTube.

I'm not saying YouTube is perfect. I'm saying that YouTube is a cloud.

Amazon's music service is not a cloud. If it was a cloud, it would allow you to upload and listen to whatever music without thinking about payment. Instead, the "cloud" service Amazon is offering carves up the cloud into tiny little chunks and says "this square inch is your part of the cloud."

Really? That doesn't seem very cloud-like to me. That seems like a web-based rental store.

The numbers say music piracy is in decline. This is because the numbers don't bother to actually track what's going on.

It's true that people are torrenting less music. But they are still getting their music for free. From clouds like YouTube, pseudo-clouds like Facebook, and clear-sky streaming from places like Grooveshark.

This was inevitable. Torrents are not, fundamentally, very good for exploring music. The only reason they were so prevalent was because there was nothing better around. Now there's a bunch of good solutions for free and nearly-free music.

... But what about Amazon's toy? Why am I so pro-cloud and anti-web-rental-store?

The strength of the cloud is that its users self-organize. When I'm on YouTube, I can find pretty much anything. The threads linking various videos and songs together are surprising and sometimes unusually insightful. They contain a lot of metadata, it's always a rich experience. Especially if you turn off all downvoted comments.

YouTube is a living organism in the proper sense of the term. Millions of users constantly swapping videos and metadata like cells swapping chemicals and proteins. Interacting with a proper cloud is always different, always changing, and always full of interesting little insights. Also, it is resilient against imposed order: even with YouTube's sometimes crooked policies and vote-bot abuse, all the videos you want to see are still there, somewhere. Like a living creature, it cannot be truly controlled, just made vaguely presentable in front of guests.

On the other hand, a web-based store is not a living creature, nor is it a cloud. It's a store.

It might be a vigorous and interesting store, but interacting with a store carries none of the cultural weight and freedom of interacting with a life form given free rein. Anything you can find in Amazon's music store, you can find that or better on YouTube, with all the added interconnective metadata that makes it even richer.

That's why I hate these pathetic kinds of "services". They exist specifically to bend the user over backwards and gut them, all the while telling you how lucky you are that you can be screwed over personally, no matter where on the planet you are!

Try offering a service that does more for the users rather than less. Maybe then I won't be so angry!

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