Google Takes Aim at iTunes but Only Hits the Haters
Google deserves plenty of credit for what it's done with Google Music. It's free, it streams music to browsers and Android devices, and it stores lots of music. But it won't be enough to change the minds of Apple devotees. In fact, even Apple haters might find a more attractive alternative with Amazon.
11/17/11 5:00 AM PT
I've been following Google Music with a bit of interest, starting with the beta. I must admit, though, that my interest is pretty much just academic, on the off chance that Google might actually announce a new service that's not only easy to use and ubiquitous, but also so compelling that I had to jump on board.
The Google Music shown Wednesday is not it.
That's not to say that Google Music won't shake out to be a good service, just that it's so very far away from pushing me off my iTunes and iOS perch that I can effectively ignore it.
Compare and Contrast
Harsh? Perhaps. But as I see it, anyone who is happy with their iPhone, iPod touch or iPad can also ignore Google Music. The same goes for anyone who uses iTunes and doesn't outright hate Apple.
Google Music lets you upload your music and stream it from the cloud to Web browsers and Android-based devices. Nice. With iTunes Match, Apple lets you do the essentially the same thing, with potentially less effort for uploading. Of course, iTunes Match will cost you 25 clams for the privilege, but it seems that the US$25 was the cost of playing ball with the major record labels.
Either way, it's $25. If you want an easy streaming/downloading/syncing service with your iOS world, there it is. I'm not ditching everything I know about my music collection for Google just to save $25 a year, and I would be surprised to see many iTunes and iOS-packing fans bother either.
Google did manage to snag three of the top four major record labels, missing out only on Warner Music Group, at least for now. Google also has smaller independent record labels on board, too. As for Apple, all four of the majors let Apple sell their songs. This, of course, only matters if you want to buy new music from Warner artists -- I believe that Google Music will still let you upload existing tracks to your Google Music storage locker in the sky.
There are similarities and minor differences between the two. With Apple's iTunes Match, if one of your songs happens to be one of the 20 million or so that Apple offers and is matched, you can re-download the song as a 256-kbps, DRM-free AAC file. And for $25, Apple iTunes Match lets you manage up to 25,000 songs.
Google Music, on the other hand, offers songs encoded at 320 Kbps as MP3 files. My ears are not audiophile quality, but I'm pretty sure that 99 percent of all consumers won't be able to tell a difference in quality between the two formats and bit rates, particularly when played through computer speakers or cheap headphones from mobile devices. Oh, and the number of songs Google will store for you in the cloud? 20,000.
But Google Shines for Android Users
On the other hand, Google Music has got to be an awesomely welcome service for Android-packing smartphone users (and those who have Android tablets, too). If I packed an Android phone, I'd be ecstatic.
So what Google Music really comes down to -- again -- is the overall battle for the ecosystem of consumers. Google wants consumers to buy into the Android-focused world, and if at all possible, do business through Google. Amazon.com, on the other hand, also plays well with Android, but Amazon wants consumers to use its Amazon MP3 music store, Amazon Cloud Player, Amazon Cloud Drive, Appstore for Android ... and now use it all with its proprietary Android blend in its Kindle Fire tablet.
Google may want to topple iTunes, but I think the real choices for non-iTunes consumers will be between Google and Amazon, and if I were to pick, I'd throw my money toward Amazon. Why? Amazon is about consumer-oriented transactions, keeping its customers happy. Google seems to be more about something else with consumers -- ads, traffic, information. As much as I like Google, I trust Amazon with my personal dollars far more.
Meanwhile, Google Offers a Pair of Interesting Features
While Google wants to create its own walled-garden ecosystem, it has managed to come up with a pair of undeniably cool features, and it's not the promise of a free song every day or even special exclusive tracks from some artists. No, the first cool feature is the ability to share your purchased music with your friends via the Google+ social networking platform. So your buddies can listen to the songs you love, in full, one time, for free. That's nice. And influential. A buddy tells me to listen to a new artist and I pay attention, even if I don't end up sharing the passion.
In addition to this nice music promotion and discovery feature, Google is letting artists build their own artist pages or mini-sites and letting them upload their own music to offer to the masses. In iTunes, big-name musicians and groups get cool sites, but I always thought this was just Apple creating the pages. With Google, artists will gain a lot of control in how they present themselves and reach out to fans. That's awesome. Of course, a lot of the great established artists are too busy to bother or don't care, but it's still another avenue artists can use to find and nurture an audience without needing big marketing dollars from a record label to do it.
Props to Google for that, of course.
All in all, it seems as if we're heading toward a digital world where most media is available to be consumed and shared digitally on all platforms, one way or another -- with some pesky choices for consumers. The choice: Which operating systems, hardware devices, and ecosystems do you want to spend the most time with? To learn? To invest in?
As long as Apple produces enviable hardware that's consistently desirable (iPhone, iPad, MacBook Airs), it will take a long time to crumble the iTunes tower.