Cloud fight! Amazon Cloud Drive vs. Google Docs vs. Microsoft Skydrive

And the Box.net is in the mix

By , ITworld |  On-demand Software, Amazon cloud drive, Box.net

Amazon this week announced the availability of its Cloud Drive to consumers; the global retailer will give away 5 GB of storage to anyone who has an Amazon account. How does this compare with existing offerings from Google and Microsoft?

[ See also: Amazon's Cloud Player has already won me over and Amazon disguises powerful online storage as cloud music service ]

The short answer is: not very well. If you need to store large files (more than a gigabyte, say) but not too many of them, then Amazon is worth a closer look. But it's short on features that both Google, Microsoft, and major competitors like as Box.net have been stuffing into their clouds for some time. (See the summary table below for a more concise feature comparison.)

Amazon, of course, has had cloud-based storage for many years, through its S3 Amazon Web Services. However, that storage is only available for programs and not for people. A few providers, such as ElephantDrive.com and JungleDisk.com have come out with products that use Amazon's cloud, and these are worth a look at if you need a lot of storage on the cheap. But what about using Amazon's cloud directly through this new Cloud Drive offering?

Musical focus

First off, Amazon makes it easy to upload anything from your browser: there is no additional software required, although they do have an Windows or Mac-based uploading tool that can be used for sending a collection of files quickly to their cloud.

Second, they are focused on music files: your storage quota is upped to 20 GB if you purchase an entire MP3 music CD from Amazon after you initiate your account (prior purchases aren't eligible). You can directly play any of your music files from within the browser, which is nice if you want to stream them to your smartphone or to another computer. (Music industry lawyers are already sharpening their quills and quivers over this feature.)

You can upload your music files directly to Amazon's cloud -- and play them from the browser.

Cloud costs

Amazon's Web services used to be known as a cheap place to host cloud computing and storage. That isn't the case with its Cloud Drive. While you can get 5 GB for free, the price goes up quickly as you want to consume more storage. When you get to a terabyte, Amazon will cost $1,000 a year. That's probably the most expensive terabyte you can find these days. Compare that to Google Docs, which will only cost $256 annually. And of course the real bargain is Microsoft's Skydrive.com, which will give you 25 GB of storage for free.

Microsoft's cloud drive will give you 25 GB of free storage.

While Skydrive sounds appealing, it does have a few downsides: first, there is no way to expand it beyond that free 25 GB (other than by opening another Hotmail account to get another 25 gigs); and second, the actual files that you can store on Skydrive are limited to 50 MB in size, which is rather puny – but that's how they can afford to give away so much storage. Amazon's limit is 2 GB per file, which is better than you will get from Google or Microsoft. If you're using the commercial Box.net service, you have to upgrade to the paid Business account to be able to store gigabyte-sized files, and that will run you $15/month. So for videographers or others who need to store huge files cheaply, Amazon should be your first place to try out.

Where are the features?

Amazon is very feature poor when compared to its competitors. Both Google and Microsoft have been adding all sorts of collaboration tools to their clouds that make it easier to share documents among a project team, providing an alternative to emailing them around as attachments. Google has incorporated near real-time joint authoring of its documents, so two or more people can be editing on their own computers, and both will be able to see the changes and post comments. If you have ever had to work jointly on a document, you can be a lot more effective using this feature.

Google allows for real-time co-editing of its documents.

Box.net includes what it calls "open box" -- dozens of add-on applications that enhance its service, including the ability to share your Box files on LinkedIn, WordPress blogs and Salesforce.com, and send them to fax machines, as you can see in the screen shot below.

There are dozens of add-on applications that you can employ to enhance Box.net.

Google Docs also has the ability to create Web-based forms, for example, and store the results in a shared spreadsheet. Google, Microsoft (through its Live Mesh service), and Box.net all have ways to synchronize the files that you have in the cloud with the files that you have on your desktop. Amazon lacks this feature. Surprisingly, Live Mesh is the best of the services in that it allows you to synchronize both Mac and Windows computers. You probably haven't heard of it yet because Microsoft's Live Cloud is not well integrated with Skydrive, and there are different bits and pieces that don't fit all together. Live Mesh can sync up files bigger than 50 MB, but then you can't edit or view them in Skydrive. Box and Google Docs only allow Windows PCs to sync with their cloud drives (and Google has a synch-add only for Office 2010 at that, called Cloud Connect).

Conclusion

I've tried the Amazon service, and I've used the others for several years, and I keep going back to using Box.net. It is a very feature-rich environment (I've touched on just a few of its capabilities here) and the price is reasonable too for plans with less than 100 GB of storage. If you need to share large files, it is the easiest of the services to use (your correspondents just get a URL to click on to share your files -- they don't need to open their own account). Still, I am sure Amazon isn't going to sit still with its Cloud Drive and will eventually bring it to feature parity with its competitors. And if its experience with its S3 service is any indication, the company will continue to lower prices on storage as it figures out cheaper ways to provide for more room.

Cloud storage services compared
Amazon Cloud Drive Google Docs Microsoft Skydrive Box.net
Free storage 5 GB 1 GB(1) 25 GB 5 GB
Maximum file size 2 GB 1 GB(1) 50 MB 25 MB(2)
Annual price for 20 GB $20(3) $5 Free $10
Annual price for 1 TB $1,000 $256(1) Unavailable Varies
Collaboration tools No Yes Yes (Live Mesh) Yes
Sync to desktop No Yes (Windows only) Yes (Windows and Mac) Yes (Windows only)

Notes:

  1. Google places storage and size limits on uploaded documents; docs created online in Google's own formats don't count in the storage quotas and can be larger than 1 MB
  2. Free account is limited to 25 MB files; you can increase this limit to 2 GB by paying extra or moving to a Business account for $15 per user per month.
  3. Amazon will waive this fee if you purchase an entire MP3 music CD after you create your account. Any music you purchased from Amazon and store on your Cloud Drive doesn't count towards your storage quota.
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