Why Owning the Consumer Media Cloud is the New Battle Royale

Let’s face facts: Digital media management is a complete mess. Like many consumers, I have my digital media stored across a array of devices, services and networks — music on iTunes, Android, Sonos and Grooveshark; video on my Mac and managed through Cisco’s Flip software; photos scattered across Flickr, Picasa and Facebook; and video entertainment in a hodgepodge of devices and services like a FiOS set-top, an Xbox 360, Netflix, Hulu and my PC.

While it may seem like I’m completely disorganized, I think I’m simply a typical early adopter. Not that I would trade in the choice I have, but the tradeoff for choice is the herculean task of managing all those accounts, payments, files and devices.

But, as Apple discovered over the past decade, it’s a task worth pursuing, because consumers will reward a company by making their lives easier.

Consumer Media Management 1.0: iTunes

The reason iTunes really took off (and why Microsoft/Windows Media Player didn’t) is because it was the first comprehensive music (and later digital media) management tool that was easy to use and actually cohesively managed a consumer library of content. Add in the benefit of seemless syncing with a well-done playback device (iPod, then iPhone, and now iPad), and iTunes provided the first real on-ramp for consumers to start their lives in a purely digital media world.

The problem today — and really over the last three to four years — is the proliferation of devices (smartphones, tablets, PCs, connected TVs, consoles), networks (mobile 3G/4G, broadband, broadcast) and storefronts (app stores, consoles stores, iTunes, on-deck carrier stores, etc.). It makes iTunes look as modern as an AMC Gremlin, particularly as the company attempts to shuttle consumers from the world of digital media 1.0 to the world of cloud-based media delivery.

Consumer Media Management 2.0: Owning the Consumer Media Cloud

And so with cloud, there comes the need for a new media management paradigm: the ability to manage a mix of content in the cloud and on a variety of devices through a unified interface. Apple knows this, and is, by all accounts looking to transition iTunes to the cloud, but iTunes has become the Windows of consumer media management — slow and bloated as it tries to serve the master of a large installed base.

But make no mistake, sorting through digital rights, accounts, metadata, files, etc. will continue to be a challenge, and right now Apple, even as a gigantic walled garden and creaky software, is the odds-on favorite to win. But nothing is guaranteed.

Barbarians at the Walled-Garden Gate

So who are the barbarians at Apple’s walled garden gate? Without a doubt, Google and Facebeook all see the chink in Apple’s armor, and are each moving to create ways in which consumers can better manage their content through a unified interface.

Google’s approach is through a more open, cloud-centric approach of combining universal accounts, cloud storage, rights lockers and browser-based consumption. Its first attempts are content-specific, such as music and books, but expect increased cohesiveness under the Google account (likely centering around Gmail accounts).

Facebook may seem like an innocent bystander here, but don’t underestimate its intentions. Today it is the de facto photo storage service, has a payments service, and as its platform ambitions grow, expect it to look to suck in a consumer’s media, or at least overlay on top of it.

One darkhorse in all this? Amazon. It’s the closest thing Apple has to a competitor in digital music downloads, and no doubt its video ambitions are growing with its acquisition of Lovefilm. Expect it to present a more unified interface to manage a consumer’s content in the cloud. That will allow the company to better monetize its best asset in consumer media: the credit-card relationship with consumers. In other words, Amazon could try, eventually, to create an iTunes in the cloud.

Question of the week

What tools can companies give consumers to better manage digital media?