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Google's Cloud Crescendo

Google's Cloud Crescendo

One of the biggest announcements to come out of this week's Google I/O conference was the launch of the long-awaited Google Music service. It lets users upload their song libraries to a cloud locker, then stream music to a variety of different devices. However, critics say that without record label agreements, Google Music still has lots of missing pieces.

By Richard Adhikari
05/13/11 5:00 AM PT

The online music storage and streaming field is heating up, with Amazon having launched its own service recently and Apple reportedly readying its own. Recently Google put out its own cloud music service, Google Music, though it didn't arrive without its share of rough spots.

Currently, users can upload their music collections to the service in order to enjoy them online through a variety of Web-connected devices. However, they can't download the music -- only stream it. It's possible this is because Google wants to avoid lawsuits from the music industry, which has a history of going after anyone it suspects of breaching copyright.

Google reserves the right to boot illegally downloaded songs from the collections subscribers upload to the service. However, it's not yet clear just how it will spot pirated tracks.

Humming Along With Google Music

Once a user loads his or her cloud locker, Google Music will let him or her listen from the Web or any enabled device with the Music app from the Android Market.

Subscribers can upload music files from any folder or playlist or add their iTunes libraries to Google Music. New music downloaded to subscribers' computers is added automatically to their Google Music libraries. Once the music is online, it will always be available, and playlists are automatically kept in sync.

However, subscribers won't be able to shop for music through Google Music. The search giant has yet to pound out agreements with major music labels to get into the business of selling songs.

Subscribers can stock tracks at any bitrate, and the service is reportedly free as long as it's in beta. File formats supported are MP3, AAC, WMA and FLAC.b

Google Music runs on Android 2.2 or above with Open GL ES 2.0.

Accessing Music While off the Web

Recently played songs will automatically be made available offline. Further, subscribers can select the albums, artists and playlists they want to have available offline.

"We cache music for offline listening on your devices," Google spokesperson Erin Fors told TechNewsWorld. "This is done through the Android Music Application on your device."

Google probably caches music by mirroring its service on the user's device, Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, suggested.

"You hit a slim mirror of the service when you're offline, and when you come online, that mirror probably syncs with the Web host updating it," Enderle told TechNewsWorld.

Google Music, Downloads and the Law

Uploading your entire library to Google Music shouldn't be regarded as a fail-safe backup for one's song collection, though. Once a song's uploaded to Google Music, it can only be played back via stream, not re-downloaded as a file. Fear of legal tussles with the music industry is probably why Google Music doesn't allow subscribers to re-download tunes from their digital libraries.

"Enabling re-downloading could make Google liable for copyright infringement if individual users allow others to have access to those re-downloadable files," Susan Kevorkian, a research director at IDC, told TechNewsWorld. "It would then begin to look and feel like a file-sharing service, albeit on a smaller scale."

Google launched its streaming music service Tuesday without having reached an agreement on licensing with the music industry, and that's possibly making it extra cautious about possible copyright infringement.

"If users can only stream music and not download it, that would make it easier for Google to argue to the music labels that it's trying to prohibit illegal file-sharing," Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Limping Along on the Streaming Music Field

Though Google Music is still in its beta phase, that fact hasn't stopped some critics from slamming its perceived shortcomings.

"As things stand now, Google's music service is very lame," Aapo Markkanen, a senior analyst at ABI Research, told TechNewsWorld. "It's very last-decade, so to speak."

There are two major limitations to Google's music service, Markkanen said.

One is that it makes subscribers upload all the content to the cloud before being able to stream it, instead of having a cloud-based database to which it matches their music libraries to decide what they can access. Another major limitation is its inability to let subscribers purchase music, Markkanen stated.

"Both of these problems are due to legal issues -- Google launched this beta version of its music service without getting permission from the rights holders," Markkanen elaborated.

Amazon's offering is a little better because that company "at least sells users tracks and lets them transfer these directly to their lockers," Markkanen said.

"Amazon Cloud Drive is a little bit ahead of Google Music in terms of availability on multiple platforms and the re-download issue," Jia Wu, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld. Apple has not unveiled whatever cloud music service it might have up its sleeve, so "it's too early" to make a definitive statement as to how good or not so good Google Music really is, Wu added.

Music Hath Charms ... and the Promise of Money

Those rights holders are, by and large, the music labels, which have been reluctant to give their blessings to streaming music services.

Difficult negotiations with music labels led both Google and Amazon to launch their streaming music services before signing agreements with the recording industry.

The music labels are caviling because they want to negotiate the best possible terms for payment for their intellectual property and to exercise as much control as possible over that property, IDC's Kevorkian commented.

It's expected that both Google and Amazon will seek to come to terms with the music industry eventually.

Sinking Pirated Music

In addition, Google's noted it will trash any illegally downloaded songs subscribers upload to its servers. This move may be seen as a bid to assuage the music industry's concerns about music pirating.

But how will Google be able to recognize pirated music?

"How Google will recognize illegally downloaded songs is beyond me, simply because it doesn't know how many music licenses you may own but not reveal to them," the Yankee Group's Howe said.

"It's conceivable they are recognizing file signatures of known pirated music, but I suspect this statement may simply be one to appeal to the music label lawyers, not to describe a secret enforcement mechanism they've built," he said.


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