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Amazon, T-Mobile test limits of unlimited cloud media

Commentary: With their new all-you-can-eat offerings on storage and streaming, the firms could be positioning themselves as market leaders, at least in the long term.

At the unveiling of T-Mobile's "Music Freedom" offering, CEO John Legere is flanked by DJ Ryan Lewis (left) and Rapper Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty of the hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Mat Hayward/Getty Images for T-Mobile

In the same city on the same day, two companies made their bid to further their interest in the wireless industry. Amazon, an outsider seeking to become more of an insider, unveiled the Fire Phone. T-Mobile, an insider positioning as an outsider, made the latest in its string of announcements intended to disrupt.

Following an earlier cloud announcement about storing an unlimited amount of music purchased from its digital store, Amazon announced it would offer free, unlimited cloud storage of photos taken with its new phone. T-Mobile, for its part, said it would no longer count the data used by streaming music services against users' monthly allotment. In fact, it would also exclusively offer free Rhapsody UnRadio (the name being play on its Un-Carrier branding).

In both cases, the companies' resources will be only nominally strained. For Amazon, one of the largest providers of wholesale cloud storage services, storing photos coming from the Fire Phone's initial small base of owners won't pose much of a problem. For T-Mobile, taking on the relatively small amount of data used by streaming services -- which serve up compressed music files -- won't tax a network that's seen enough improvement to encourage T-Mobile to offer a free seven-day trial.

But both companies have played on the sensitivity we have to the limits that have been endemic in the move to the cloud, particularly as they apply to two personal forms of media: music and photos. The progression of access to music from the cloud has been under way for some time now, with a host of streaming services being offered by carriers; mobile phone and operating system providers; and independent companies such as Rhapsody.

The migration of photos to the cloud has taken a somewhat different path, with consumers mostly sharing ad hoc on sites such as Facebook and Instagram, but relatively few archiving outside of comprehensive cloud backup services such as Crashplan and Carbonite, which have their own plan-based restrictions. Unlike with music, which is a relatively universal library, everyone's personal photo collection is unique.

By themselves, the moves won't likely move the needle for the companies challenging the market leaders. For Amazon, the announcement of the unlimited cloud storage for photos took a back seat to other and even less useful features the company was touting, including the Dynamic Perspective interface extensions and its Firefly object identification. For T-Mobile, the unlimited music streaming announcement is the latest in a string of unveilings designed by the carrier to disrupt; the next is already on tap for late summer.

Longer term, such moves can help position the companies as marketplace leaders and change an agenda to their terms. In the past, the halo effect has been visible at T-Mobile, which has seen earlier announcements, such as rolling phone upgrade programs and its move away from contracts, adopted by its competitors. Amazon, of course, has seen Prime-like free-shipping subscription services adopted by the likes of Newegg and syndicated by ShopRunner.

With Amazon starting out far behind Apple and Samsung, and T-Mobile in distant pursuit of AT&T and Verizon, the promise of unlimited can help break through the limits of marketplace realities.