Google, that seemingly all-encompassing entity, has its fingerprints all over just about every digital realm of our lives. And, in 2011, in addition to entering the social networking fray, the technology giant is also using the fast-evolving concept of cloud computing -- storing data on external servers rather than locally on your computer -- to help revolutionize how we collect and enjoy our music collections. Not unlike, say, Apple.
The premise is simple enough: Google's Music Beta promises to bring your personal song stash to a magical "hard drive in the sky," accessible anywhere you have internet access.
Remember the 1990s? In the realm of music, that decade seems light years ago in term of how we carry around and comsume our music. Back then, carrying, a significant amount of music around consisted of toting around a cumbersome Case Logic CD case, which was usually dotted with a fair share of surreptituosly purloined discs that were we acquired from the lost art form known as "burning."
It's hard to think that it's been over a full decade since Apple changed the game with iTunes and the dominance of the iPod. Suddenly, people could carry large collections of tunes in their pockets, no heavy lifting required. The revolution was so complete that we really take Apple's model of media player for granted these days. But with hard drive space, efficiency and fast bandwidth falling in price over the past decade, a dramatic sea change has been simmering.
The Google Music Beta service, which is still only open to a limited group of testers, promises a new future in how the everyday music listener interacts with his or her library. It's hardly an original concept -- in addition to Apple, Amazon also has created a cloud music service this year.
It's in the differences between the three models where a winner will emerge.
Considering that it's still in beta, the Google Music service currently boasts a solid set of features.
Here's a quick rundown: You download a small, unobtrusive program to your computer, point it to any folder or simply to your iTunes library and sync. Music is then sucked off of your machine and into the cloud. Once your music is added to the cloud -- a process that can take up to a few days -- you have access to it from any web browser, even on your phone. Currently, the we browsing access from your cell phone is a little clunky at this point. But there's also a nifty Android app that makes navigating your collection a breeze.
The pros: Google Music has great predictive search features -- just like the Google web site. It works extremely fast with high sound fidelity, despite the fact that it's streaming music. It's easy to sort and organize collections. And user scripts can be written for the service, expanding its capabilities to other services, such as the music site last.fm
The cons: You have very little control over what exactly goes into the cloud -- you pick to sync the program with your iTunes library and you get all of it, no matter what. And iPhone users in particular get a watered down, web-only experience for now, too, since the App Store has yet to approve the official Google Music app at the time of this writing. Also, you can't buy tracks through Google Music (agreements with the major record labels fell through). We still don't know anything about pricing, since it's a pretty safe bet that Google will start asking for money once the "beta" tag is removed from the service.
Still, at this point, most misgivings with Google Music must be discounted by the fact that this, after all, is a very
early iteration of a service that has about as much potential an iTunes did way back in 2001. They really did get a lot of things right, too.
And while lugging around an external hard drive in order to have ubiquitous access to your entire library is already far less work than carrying a backpack full of CDs or a crate of records, Google is showing us that cloud computing can lift even that weight off of our shoulders.