Looking at Google's recently released beta version of Google Music, it's hard not to come away with the notion that the online giant originally conceived this service to be much, much more than it is at the moment. And that's because Google Music, in beta form, is a pretty bare bones service that looks and works an awful lot like Amazon's recently-released Cloud Player. And that's fine except for one thing: Amazon also sells music, always has, and the company offers an amazing bit of integration between its Amazon MP3 service and Cloud Player, allow customers to purchase music and automatically copy it over to their cloud storage without ever downloading it to a PC or device. (You can still do that, of course.) Google, amazingly, is not selling music. It's just offering a place to store and play your own music in the cloud.
That's a huge disadvantage, one that will become even more obvious when Apple unleashed its iCloud service, most likely next month at the WWDC. Fortunately for Google, however, Google Music does offer a couple of advantages even in this initial, stripped down version. And so dedicated music fans will still want to take a look.
Here's a quick look at the first, beta version of Google Music.
Google Music--or what the company somewhat dubiously calls Music Beta by Google (as if it were a trendy condominium complex in Scottsdale, Arizona)--is a new service that provides storage and playback capabilities for your own music collection. It works via the web--which is how you'll have to access this service from a PC--or via a native app for Android. (This is exactly how Amazon's service works too, oddly enough.)
How do you get your collection to the cloud? Via the PC, of course, using a utility called Music Manager. This is Google's version of the Amazon MP3 Uploader. But the Google version is actually a bit nicer because it gives you finer-grain control over what gets uploaded. You can choose between your iTunes or Windows Media Player-based music libraries, the entire My Music folder, or content stores in whatever folders you choose. This should work for virtually any music fan, regardless of how your music is organized.
Uploading took several hours, as with Amazon's service. My collection is south of 4000 songs, according to Google. And here is where another difference with Amazon emerges. Where Amazon provides 5 GB of storage for free, or 20 GB if you purchase any single digital album from Amazon MP3, and then provides tiered pricing after that, Google lets you upload 20,000 songs for free. (Pricing beyond that is TBD.)
This means that my fairly voluminous music library doesn't even crack one-fifth of Google's free service, whereas this library--which weighs in at about 25 GB--is roughly five times as big as what Amazon offers for free. Put another way, I'll never hit Google's upper limit and will thus not have to pay for Google Music. But I pay Amazon $50 a year for the 50 GB plan, because the next tier down--20 GB--is too small. That's a huge difference right there.
Once your collection is uploaded, you can spend some time checking out the Google Music web-based UI. Here, Amazon has the slight edge in my opinion in that Cloud Player is simply a more attractive looking player. But you can see from either of these solutions that the days of native media player apps like iTunes and WMP are coming to a close. Neither Google Music nor Cloud Player is that full-featured yet. Yet. But you can see they will be.
Anyway, Google Music is laid out just like Cloud Player, with a navigation column on the left that provides access to different views of the collection (Songs, Artists, Albums, Genres, plus various playlists) and a main area where the currently selected item is displayed either graphically (like Albums) or in a spreadsheet-like list view (Songs).
I used Music Manger to upload my iTunes library to Google, and it picked up all my iTunes-based playlists very nicely, making them available from any web connection or Android over the air. Well, it made the "normal" playlists available, not the smart playlist. Here, Amazon has the slight edge, because it transfers Smart Playlists too and then can keep them synced up so they're always up to date. Looking at this, my guess is that Amazon simply hopes you'll use this tool to make a one-time transfer of the collection and then simply use the cloud to manage your music going forward. (Music Manager does sync going forward, however.) My further guess is that few people are ready for that leap quite yet.
To Google's credit, they do provide some interesting tools that are absent in the Amazon solution. You can create Google Music-based auto playlists, their limited version of iTunes' Smart Playlists, but only for items that are marked "thumbs up," recently added, or free songs. You can also create your own instant mixes by selecting a song and then clicking the "+" button in Instant Mixes: As with the Genius feature in iTunes, a new playlist of similar songs is calculated and created.
Playback works similarly to that of Cloud Player, with forward, back, play/pause, shuffle, repeat, and volume widgets in the bottom of the player.
But another area where Google comes out ahead is song editing. Unlike with the Amazon offering, you can actually edit song meta data via Google Music. I don't see a way to do this in Cloud Player.
I only briefly tested the Google Music Android app and then only on a single Droid X smart phone, but it appears to work as expected, with Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists, and Genres views. It works with both online and offline (on-device) music, and you can choose to "cache" streamed music for better performance. If you wish to make a song or album (or playlist) available for offline use on the device, you can download the content using a simple UI. The Android app also supports playlist creation.
For now, Google Music offers a few advantages over Amazon Cloud Player but a few disadvantages as well, the biggest being the lack of an integrated online music store or Zune Pass-like subscription service. But my guess is that Google will rev Music just as quickly as they do their other services and that what we see now is just the beginning. Since Google is currently meting out Google Music invites on a first-come, first-serve basis, it may be a while before you can check it out yourself. But I recommend doing so when you can, as it does offer some useful advantages over Amazon and should be free for most users going forward. There's no reason you can't store your music collection in multiple cloud services. In fact, that may be prudent.