Google Music has publicly launched after lengthy beta testing, and inevitably some are already dubbing it the iTunes killer. That seems a little premature, but it does appear the service stands the best chance yet of being firmly established as a rival to Apple.
For the moment the service is US only, with expansion at the mercy of country-by-country licensing restrictions. While there’s no word on the schedule for adding more customers, there’s a good chance the UK will be among the first added markets to get the service.
The service is both similar to and different from the iTunes store. It stands out because users can automatically listen to their purchased music on any computer through a web browser. Users can also download mp3 files at 320kbps: that means comparatively good sound quality, though file sizes are larger. There are no technological restrictions on downloading purchased music, burning the songs to a CD, or copying to a portable device. However, there is a legal restriction, namely that the music is only for your own non-commercial use.
As well as purchased music, users can upload up to 20,000 tracks from their own computer and then access them over the web. However, unlike a similar service from Apple, every song must be individually uploaded, which could be an extremely lengthy process.
Google Music does allow a form of sharing, though it’s not unrestricted. It’s only available to members of the Google+ social networking service. The system is set up so that once a member buys a song, his or her online contacts each have the right to listed to that song once without charge.
It’s on mobile devices where Google Music may make the biggest splash. There’s not only a dedicated Android application, but the music catalogue is built directly into the Android Market, meaning you can buy with a simple click in the same way as buying an app. The idea seems to be to make music more of an impulse purchase with as little hassle as possible. Intriguingly one mobile phone network in the US has added an option to buy music and have the cost added to your monthly phone bill.
The music catalogue is the biggest weakness against iTunes at the moment. Warner Music, one of the three remaining major labels, has not yet agreed to have its music on the service. Between that and the fact that Google is only part of the way through signing up independent labels, the service “only” has 13 million tracks available, compared with around 18 million on iTunes.
There are a few exclusives though, with bands such as Coldplay, Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones providing live albums that can’t be bought elsewhere. The service also offers a free Song of the Day.
Unsigned artists have the ability to add music to the service. To do so they pay a $25 (£16) fee to set up a dedicated page in the “New Music Hub.” They can then set their own prices for downloads, with Google taking 30 percent of the revenue.