iTunes has a problem.

Amazon and Google, probably the only two companies with enough business savvy and money to challenge Apple’s music-selling monstrosity, are in. For real. And while (in spite of cute tricks like their Lady Gaga 99 cent album debacle) it’s not clear whether Amazon will get their act together, Google Music is going to be huge.

Huge, by the way, might be the operative word. Verizon may not like me this month, as I uploaded my entire 7,000 song music collection to Google Music over the weekend—50 Gigabtyes of data sent, and 50 Gigabytes of data received over 26 hours of music upload at high speed. Yowza.

Forget for a moment the business change aspects of this that apply to the relationships that Apple, Amazon, and Google have, or want to have, or decide to ignore with the music labels. Assume that the way things are being done ultimately withstands legal challenges; Apple has deals in place, Google is working on it, and Amazon has thus far taken the position that they don’t need music publishers’ permission to just create you a big locker for your digital files. In the end, all three of these companies will be fine.

Assume, then, that the business change coming to the music industry is inevitable; we’re all going to be listening to our music through the cloud, rather than from files stored on devices like iPods. Google Music has fleshed out and turned on the idea well enough that we can talk about how it will look.

Google Music

In fact, here it is. I can get to my music from any computer, and assuming my Internet connection is solid enough to support a stream, listen to it from anywhere. Not surprisingly, Android users can use an app for Google Music instead of the Google Music web site. More on that in a moment.

So to start, the issue with using Google Music is that you need to get all of your music into the cloud (that 50 Gigabyte story), and then you need to have connectivity to access it when you want to play music. And of course, if the data you can receive is metered or limited by whomever you get Internet access from, you may need to pay to play your music that way. Let’s pretend that you have unlimited access, as I do at both my home through Verizon FIOS, and via my Droid using Verizon Wireless. No problem so far!

The next question is about the quality of your music stream. My subjective opinion is that the music that I’ve heard through Google Music sounds the same as the music on my iPod, which makes sense since according to the sparse documentation Google is providing on the subject (“we’ll transcode your music at up to 320 kbps”), it is the same.

I like that Google music has a smart uploader program that examines your music library, uploads only the songs that it can handle (so DRM-encoded iTunes-format songs are skipped), and reports very specifically on what it’s done.

I find it amazing (and the right choice) that Google Music limits your library not by the size of your uploaded collection but by the number of songs you have. You can put up to 20,000 songs in your Google Music Cloud Library, and whatever amount of storage space that takes up is not an issue; as I said, my collection of 7,000 songs (encoded at an average of around 160 kbps) occupies 50 Gigabytes, so if you have the full 20,000 songs and they’re all encoded at 320 kbps Google Music is offering you an astonishing 300 Gigabytes of storage, for free, with no strings attached. Compare this to Amazon’s offer of 20 Gigabytes for $20 per year. Wow.

Now, here’s what isn’t so good about Google Music:

First, the Google Music Android App is Broken. It works as a player and it’s attractive and intuitive enough, but I’ve experienced several instances of the Google Music App starting up all by itself and blasting music from my pocket. This apparently has been a flaw in the Android App for quite some time, but until I had a Google Music account I hadn’t ever run the App. Nevertheless, it’s simply unacceptable that running Google Music on your Smartphone subjects you to the possibility that your music might start playing at any moment.

Second, despite Google providing explicit instructions for downloading music back to your computer or SmartPhone, it doesn’t seem to actually be possible. I’m certain the music labels will be happy if this never changes, but if I uploaded it, shouldn’t I have the option to download it, too?

Finally, you need to be concerned about that bandwidth issue. Again, as a Verizon FIOS user I was able to blast my collection up to Google Music in “just” 26 hours and the bandwidth didn’t cost anything. And so far, my Verizon Wireless data plan is unlimited, so I can listen all I like when I’m out. But AT&T has announced that they’re about to cap the data you can transfer on your home Internet account, and both AT&T and Verizon are preparing pay-by-what-you-consume wireless data plans; using Google Music could become very, very expensive.

Which is where this article circles back from a review of Google Music to a commentary on business change.

Google, Amazon, and Apple, by encouraging you to get in the cloud for their music streaming services, are setting you up to spend a bunch more on connectivity than you’re accustomed to spending. Are they in cahoots with bandwidth providers on that? I can’t provide evidence, but my guess is, that yes, they are. Google has a history of playing both sides of the fence on issues related to the Verizons of the world, and Apple is … well, Apple is evil.

Functionally, and as it exists right this minute, I  recommend Google Music highly in spite of its flaws. But holy cow… watch out for the bait and switch when someone uses Google to reach into your pocket. Google Music is business change, and in a business that needs it badly.

But you may not like the results.


Just hours after we published this post about Google Music, Apple announced iCloud—their answer to the Google Music/Amazon triumverate.

iCloud looks like a great deal compared to Amazon, and technically speaking (Perception is Reality, anyone?) Apple has told the truth about Google Music, since Google Music is in Beta and might stop being free one day.

But really, Apple? You have that little respect for us? :

Apple iCloud, Google Music, and Amazon Cloud

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