Blog Post

Weekend Project: Streaming iTunes From Cloud to Phone

I’ve long wanted to be able to store music from my iTunes collection in the cloud and then stream it on demand. I have the bandwidth — a Verizon MiFi (s vz) that creates a 3G mobile hotspot, a Google Nexus One (s goog) with 3G, and a monthly subscription to Boingo’s Wi-Fi network — I just needed to find the right cloud solution. So I did a little digging and uncovered several options.

One is MP3Tunes. The web service scans a PC or Mac for music and then uploads the audio files to a digital music locker on the MP3Tunes servers. The client software will even monitor my computer for when I add new music — something I’m apt to do a few times a week thanks to Amazon’s MP3 (s amzn) deal of the day, which offers albums for $3.99 or less. MP3Tunes supplies a 2 GB account for free, so anyone can try it, but a 50 GB locker sets you back $39.95 a year.

I like the flexibility that MP3Tunes provides because my music is available on practically any device I own, no matter where I am. There’s support for both the Android and iPhone operating systems, so I can enjoy the Beatles on my phone when on a run and later kick back to some Enya on my iPad after cooling down. During the day, I often stream music on a Mac or PC while working — great when evaluating a loaner laptop that doesn’t have my music on it. A web interface provides streaming capability from practically any computer. The only downside I’ve noticed is that the Android client isn’t quite stable on my Nexus One, but I’m using a custom, or hacked ROM, on my phone, so that could be causing incompatibility issues. Aside from that, the software offers many features you’d expect in a media player: sorting by album, artist, or playlist; shuffle play; and full album art. Another handy feature is how the player integrates local music files with those stored in the cloud, so you can also enjoy any tunes physically on your device.

A second option, which I’ve used over the past year to stream music from cloud to a handset, is ZumoDrive. Like MP3Tunes, ZumoDrive stores files in the cloud and the corresponding handset client plays them back on demand. The service supports a wider range of mobile phone platforms than MP3Tunes, however: iPhone, Android and webOS all work. And unlike MP3Tunes, ZumoDrive is a full file synchronization solution in that it doesn’t just work with audio files; I routinely use it to store documents, photos and various other files in the cloud. That advantage comes at a price, though. The same 50 GB of storage offered by MP3Tunes costs $9.99 per month with ZumoDrive. If you’re just looking to stream music and have a relatively smaller music collection, I recommend the free 2 GB account or a 10 GB plan at $2.99 a month. Even though ZumoDrive isn’t a cloud service dedicated to music, the player software is much like any other audio client and rivals MP3Tunes in terms of features and usability.

Similar to ZumoDrive is SugarSync’s cloud solution. In my last Weekend Project, I used SugarSync with a third-party document editor to create and edit documents in the cloud on my iPad. It turns out that SugarSync works acceptably as a music player when combined with audio files stored online. I say “acceptably” because while you can navigate to and play music files on a phone with SugarSync, the client software doesn’t yet provide the full experience of a dedicated music player like MP3Tunes — album art doesn’t show and there’s no way to shuffle through various tracks. So it’s a bare-bones solution, but if you’re already using SugarSync to store other files and don’t want to pay for a second service, a workable one. And there’s one more advantage to using SugarSync: Aside from support on Android and the iPhone, there are client applications for Windows Mobile (s msft) and BlackBerry (s rimm) devices, too. A 2 GB trial account for SugarSync is free while $49.99 per year nabs you 30 GB of storage for music and other data.

There are plenty of other ways to enable remote handset access to a music collection, but those are my picks. And I do anticipate that Apple will provide cloud-based iTunes solution in the future, I’m just not one to wait around. I have solid connectivity most everywhere I go and I don’t feel like synchronizing and schlepping gigs of music on my many devices. Using a cloud streaming solution allows me to keep music in one centralized place and access it on nearly any connected device I use — hopefully, we’ll hear about other similar options at our upcoming Structure event.

There’s a bit of a trade-off with my cloud approach worth noting, however, in the form a of a second or two of “dead air” between songs as they load up in the client buffer, but for me that’s far outweighed by the ability to break free from the physical storage limits of a device. The capacity of my Android handset might be limited by the 16 GB microSD card inside it, but with a cloud solution I can “tote around” and enjoy 30 GB or more of music.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Forget Synching, Let’s Put Music in the Cloud!

15 Responses to “Weekend Project: Streaming iTunes From Cloud to Phone”

  1. mookflape

    this article reads more like a commercial for a new product…

    besides, you’re not limited to 16GB — get yourself a 32GB microSD card and you’ve already got more to take with you, including on the airplane or on the cruise in the caribbean — all without the buffer-time it takes to start streaming from the “cloud.”

    grab pandora, slacker, or any other app and stream music, even without a buffer (as music is buffered before it plays) — or load up dropbox to stream your music from there, too.

  2. Jonathan Foley

    For the true nerds, just host your own music server using Ampache:

    Pretty much any old computer you might have lying around coupled with an external hard-drive with all your music and your home broadband connection will suffice. There are native clients for iPhone, Android and WebOS. Its beautiful to have your entire music collection at anytime. Ampache has a web-interface so even if you don’t have your phone, you can still stream your music to a computer.

  3. Photos I’ve seen of the Apple data center parking lot in NC indicate they’re not long away from firing up the Apple/iTunes Cloud.

    Let us all know if you stick with your kludge after the real deal is in operation, eh?

    • “Let us all know if you stick with your kludge after the real deal is in operation, eh?”

      What exactly makes this a “kludge” from your perspective? These apps can monitor and upload from one or more music folders automatically, so there’s no effort on my part. And as I said in the article, I do expect Apple to be providing a similar service. The question in my mind is: how much will they charge for it? If the price is too high for a comparable service, I’ll likely pass, just as I have with MobileMe.

      • Kludge: wouldn’t Rhapsody be easier, and give you a large library, for a couple of chai lattes a month? (with the change flipped to a surly barista)

      • No doubt that Rhapsody does give you a larger potential library… but if someone wants to stream their existing music library — which they’ve already paid for — these methods are no more difficult to use than Rhapsody. That was the point of the post. ;)

      • Son, let me explain the concept of sunk cost. You see, my philosophy degree and your paid music collection have something in common… :)

      • Too funny, since I started out majoring in Philosphy myself – ended up finishing my degree in Economics. ;)

        I totally get the point on music purchases for limited libraries vs music subscriptions to large libraries. I’ve agrued that prior:

        But not every consumer is ready for that paradigm shift, hence the weekend project. It was meant to share how to do something, not to argue that it’s the best or only way to do something. Of course, we could have a philosophical debate over that. ;)