I’m feeing my age this week and it’s not because I glanced in the mirror this morning. All it took was a couple of new Internet services from Amazon.com and Google that serve up your favourite music, anytime and anywhere. They both work, they’re both cool, and they’re both updated versions of an idea that I first covered over a decade ago.
Recently, Google unveiled its new music service. Like all new Google features, it’s officially in test, or “beta”, mode, with access available by invitation only. Bop over to Music.google.com to request an invite.
At Google Music, you can upload thousands of songs from your personal collection—including tunes from your old CDs, if you rip them into digital files first—then play them back through any Internet browser. On smartphones or tablets running Google’s Android operating system, you can use a music playback app. And while Apple’s iPhone or iPad aren’t officially supported yet, I was able to play music through an iPhone’s Internet browser without too much trouble.
Playlist: Google’s Paul Joyce unveiled Google Music in the US last week. Bloomberg
The service is free, at least for now. Google says each user gets enough storage to hold around 20,000 songs, which can be in any of four popular digital formats: MP3, AAC, FLAC or Microsoft’s WMA.
As a come-on, Google is giving away a batch of free music to new users. Just tell them what kind of tunes you like during sign-up, and some will be waiting for you. Then download a program called Music Manager, available for either Windows or Mac computers, and use it to upload your own collection to Google’s servers. This can take hours, depending on the size of your library, but you only have to do it once.
There’s an “instant mix” feature as well. Pick a song, and Google Music is supposed to select 25 others in a similar musical style. It never worked for me; the software said it couldn’t find enough of the right songs in my library. Perhaps it’s time to stock up on opera and 1980s hair-band music.
But I won’t be doing that at Google Music, because it has no online store for buying more tunes. Reportedly, Google wanted to offer this service, but couldn’t come to terms with major record labels. As a result, Google Music is just a handy online warehouse for the music you've bought somewhere else.
You can buy digital music at Amazon, of course, and its new Cloud Player service makes it easy to listen to your purchased tunes. Every Amazon customer gets 5 GB free storage, and as an introductory offer, you get an additional 15 GB free for a year if you buy an album through Amazon. Otherwise, the storage is priced at a dollar a gigabyte—$20 (around Rs 900) a year for 20 GB, $50 for 50 GB, and so on. Amazon provides a good, simple, Windows or Mac program for uploading your music. But you can also use the space for documents, videos, photos—pretty much anything digital.
Like the Google service, Amazon lets you play your music files on any desktop computer, or through an app for Android phones. Again, tunes will also play over an iPhone’s browser. But unlike Google's service, you can only play MP3 or AAC recordings. WMA and FLAC files aren’t allowed.
Of course, all these services are vulnerable to network problems, such as the crash last month that took down Amazon’s online services for days. And with cellular companies tightening their monthly bandwidth caps, mobile music streaming might get a little expensive. Besides, given the huge data storage capacity of today’s smartphones, it’s probably simpler to carry your music in your pocket.
Still, there’s a lot to like about both these services. I’d have liked them just as much in 1997, when Michael Robertson pioneered the idea of a service to stream your own music. But the music companies hated the idea and sued MP3.com into a coma.
Looming over Amazon and Google is the spectre of online music store pioneer Apple, which is almost certainly working on a similar service of its own.
With the power of its iTunes store, Apple could instantly leapfrog both companies, and lock in its position as the dominant force in online music. Something to consider before you spend hours uploading your Conway Twitty albums to Amazon or Google.
©2011/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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