Google Launches Music Store, Takes on iTunes

Google is again treading a well-worn path that was pioneered by others—this time in digital music: The online giant announced the launch of its Google Music service, which provides iTunes-like functionality on Android devices and free cloud storage for users' music collections. The service was previously available in a limited public beta version.

Since that initial beta, however, Google has made a number of changes and improvements to its music service. The changes were announced at an event in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

"Google Music is about discovering, purchasing, sharing, and enjoying digital music in new, innovative, and personalized ways," Google Senior Vice President for Mobile Andy Rubin wrote in a blog post announcing the service. "We automatically sync your entire music library—both purchases and uploads—across all your devices so you don't have to worry about cables, file transfers, or running out of storage space. We'll keep your playlists [intact], too  ... whether you're on your laptop, tablet, or phone. You can even select the specific artists, albums, and playlists you want to listen to when you're offline."

It's notable that Mr. Rubin was credited for the post announcing Google Music, and he runs Google's mobile business and is the person most directly responsible for the Android platform. So it's not coincidental that Google Music is very much tied to Android.

For example, the Google Music store is primarily available via the Android Market, though non-Android users can bring up a version of the Android Market in a web browser like the second-class citizens they are. As with purchases at Apple's iTunes Store, music purchases from the Android Market are automatically stored in Google's Music service in the cloud. And users can stream or download songs from this service to Android devices, as can iTunes users with Apple devices.

The store is reasonably well-stocked with 13 million songs, a bit below Zune Marketplace and well below the iTunes Store. But that's because one of the major music labels, Warner Music, has refused to sign on for now.

To celebrate the launch, Google is offering some free tunes from bands such as The Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Busta Rhymes, and others. Visit the aforementioned blog post for a complete list and links to individual songs and albums. (And check out a related Free Songs page on the web version of the Android Market for other free picks.)

Google Music is currently available only to consumers in the United States. It's unclear when international markets will come online, but given the slow pace at record companies and the varying rights per market, it could take some time.

Regardless, the question here is whether Google has something that can stand up to Apple's iTunes juggernaut. As you might know, Apple's blockbuster online store has recently been augmented by iCloud, which stores all iTunes music and TV show purchases for customers in the cloud, and iTunes Match, a $25-per-year service that provides a high-quality duplicate of the rest of customers' music libraries in the cloud.

Google offers free storage of users' own collections, with two caveats. First, you have to upload the collection to Google's servers—a one-time effort that could take a few hours depending on the size of the collection. Second, that free offer is limited to 20,000 tracks; this shouldn't be an issue for most users.

Songs sold from Google Music are in DRM-free MP3 format and encoded at 320Kbps. Apple's purchased music (and matched songs in iTunes Match) are in 256Kbps AAC format. I'd say the two are roughly equivalent in quality, though the Google songs might be a bit bigger from a file-size perspective. Song prices on both services vary somewhat, with Google's ranging from 99 cents to $1.29.

Google offers some integration with its Google+ social networking service, while Apple offers the similarly uninteresting Ping service. Heads up, guys. We all share stuff on Facebook.

Of course, each service takes a very proprietary bent. Apple's is available on iOS devices—iPad, iPod touch, and iPhone—and on Macs and PCs via the iTunes software, which is lackluster on the PC in particular. Google's is available primarily on Android devices; users with PCs or Macs must use the web.

In the end, consumers should use both as required. For example, there's no reason for a diehard iTunes user not to grab the free music Google is offering this week, even if they intend to keep using Apple's devices and services going forward. This is yet another time when choice benefits users, who can sit on the sidelines and benefit while two corporate behemoths go at it in the marketplace.

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