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Google Music finally ready to take on iTunes

by Phil Hornshaw

It finally happened -- Google officially announced its music service, Google Music, at its Google I/O conference in San Francisco today.

The Google Music Beta is cloud-based and is currently in an invite-only stage, and will be “free for a limited time,” according to Google’s announcement. The service runs on all Android devices and is basically a lot like iTunes, but based on the Internet, or like Amazon’s Cloud Player service.

From what we’ve learned so far, Google Music will allow users to upload their music to an online “digital locker” directory, where they can stream it to just about any device they own, including PCs and Android-running tablets and phones. Like Amazon’s services and those like it, it’ll mean users can stream music without taking up hard drive space on their devices, should they choose.

But Google Music isn’t cloud-exclusive, meaning it’ll operate offline as well. It works by allowing users to pick and choose what songs, artists or albums they’ll want available in offline mode, which basically tells the cloud to download those songs to your device so they’re physically stored on-hand. Music will also support user-created playlists, which will keep chosen songs ready for offline mode, and will sync with the cloud so they’re persistent across all your devices.

Music also features an iTunes-like feature called Instant Mix, which sounds a little like Apple’s Genius feature. Clicking on a song and telling Google to build an Instant Mix around it will make a playlist of similar tracks to match the listener’s mood, without a lot of management. It sounds a lot like the way Pandora works with its Internet radio stations, grouping like songs together and bringing them to the listener without a lot of input. One wonders how robust Instant Mix is likely to be -- for example, if it will support mixes built using multiple songs or artists, the way Pandora does.

The big questions now surround how Google will price and roll out the service for users. Amazon’s cloud service is technically free right now, to a point -- it dishes out 5GB of space to users without charging them anything, and users who purchase songs through Amazon get a gratis bump up to 20GB for the first year. Similar services, like mSpot, run on a model that’s a lot like that, charging subscription fees per month or year the way Amazon will after the Cloud Player has cooled off a little.

It sounds like Google’s setup will be similar, although being as big as it is, it’s in a great position to really undercut the competition. And while Amazon was able to get out ahead of Google on music in the cloud, Google is still beating Apple to the punch, which is a pretty big deal considering the steady forward progress Google has been making in the smartphone and tablet markets. Any advantage Google can make its own is good for the company, considering that it’s still playing catch-up with Apple in many respects. With Google Music, at least until Apple rolls out its own cloud service, Google gets to be on the offensive.