So for this topic I’m not going to do an exhaustive analysis of all the different cloud music options available. I’ll basically be looking at iCloud versus Google Music, keeping in mind that some aspects of Google Music haven’t yet solidified. Google Music is officially still in beta testing phase, and iCloud is not yet available.
Apple’s iCloud offers unlimited storage for your itunes purchased music, apps, books, TV shows and photo stream (the last 30 days of photos on all devices). They offer 5GB of storage free for music not purchased from itunes, and for your documents and pim data. You can access your content on any computer or device you choose to authorise, and you can authorise up to 10 devices. Supported device types are ipad, ipod touch, iphone, and any mac or pc computer running itunes. And, as you can deduce from the last two sentences, you have to use itunes on an authorised mac or pc in order to play your music on a computer. You cannot access your iCloud via a web interface. It’s worth noting that Apple’s iCloud is a music sync service, NOT a music streaming service. That is, the music must be downloaded to a given device before it can be played.
Any song you purchase, will be downloaded automatically to all devices authorised under your Apple ID (the ID you used to subscribe to iCLoud), or if you prefer, can be set to be manually downloaded. Non-purchased music (ie not brought from itunes store) can be downloaded to any of the authorised devices.
If you find the 5GB limit on non-purchased music harsh, you can subscribe to the iTunes match service, for $25 US per year. iTunes match will scan your itunes library, and any non-purchased tracks that also exist in the itunes store will be synced across to your iCloud direct from the itunes store. This means no need to upload from your collection and will therefore also not cut in to your 5GB limit. The iTunes Match service covers you up to 25000 songs (effectively about 150GB), after that you are looking at higher pricing tiers, which I don’t think have been announced as yet. Any iTunes matched tracks can be downloaded to your authorised devices.
iTunes match in effect legitimises any tracks accepted for matching. Something like 58% of iCloud revenue will go to labels and 12% to publishers, leaving Apple with only 30%. This can be seen as a way of paying off the Recording Industry and any concerns they may have about Apple supporting users who are illegally sharing or downloading music. What’s not yet clear, is how or if Apple will attempt to filter out obviously illegal music files. For example, tracks purchased through itunes are digitally watermarked with the Apple ID of the purchaser. If cloud music becomes popular, and CD’s less common, finding “clean” source-ripped music files for illegal download may become harder. The Recording Industry may see this as a way of finally wrestling some control of copyright back into their hands. In the process, subscription based services offering very cheap per unit track costs (averaged out over the life of the subscription) should become more common. Time will tell. Playing in to this will be the release of DVD-Music discs and a (I hope) resurgence of interest in high quality digital audio tracks.
Okay, so onto Google Music.
Google Music takes quite a different approach to Apple’s iCloud. Google Music is a streaming service. This means the music is not downloaded to your computer then played, but rather played as it is downloaded, then discarded. On Android devices such as phones and tablets the music can be cached on the local device, meaning that it can be played locally if no internet connection is available or to save bandwidth.
Currently in Beta, Google Music offers storage of up to 20,000 songs, but it’s unclear at this stage whether this will be the starting point for the free service come offical release, or if it will be the first price tier or similiar. I’m guessing it will be something like $20 US for 20,000 songs and maybe 5000 free (cumulative) just to keep Apple at bay. 20,000 songs in MP3 format is roughly 160GB; Google Picasa photo storage is $20 US for 80GB (+7GB gmail data – cumulative).
Your Google Music collection will be available from any web browser that supports Flash. This rules out most mobile browsers; I’ve tried Safari on iOS4 (works but slow and clunky and not all features work), Opera Mini/Mobile, and the s60 native browser. There is a Google Music app for android phones that brings a high level of integration and functionality to Android phones. The music can be either streamed or cached on the device for later listening. It’s possible that an App will eventuate to allow Google Music to be accessed on iPhone/Touch but equally likely that this will only be possible on a jail broken device.
The web browser interface for Google Music supports playlists and sorting by Albums, Artists, Genres etc. There is no caching in Google Music via web browser, so if you have no internet you can’t play the music. You can still play the local copy through your usual music player, however if you uploaded music to your collection from another location, then you won’t be able to access that music until you again have internet access. It’s not even possible to download the music file from Google Music in order to play it locally. Also, if the internet speed is suffering slowdown as sometimes happens, the music may stutter and pause. Not a great experience if you are really trying to get into a track.
Google Music, as said previously, is a streaming service only. It is therefore fairly useless as a tool for syncing music between computers. You can however pull locally cached tracks out of the folder where it is stored on your Android device and copy it to your computer. It will have a non-identifiable name and will need to be renamed using a id-tag to filename tool. Not ideal. Hopefully some kind of syncing feature will become available but Google have not said anything about it as yet.
The major plus for Google Music however, is you can play it on any computer with internet access where you can log in to your Google Music account. Internet Cafe, friends place, grandparents, holiday unit, where-ever. This is something you simply can not do with iCloud.
For uploading music to Google Music, you use an application called Music Manager, whose simple task is to upload music from the folders you select to your Google Music account. There is NO music matching feature like iCloud’s iTunes Match. At the time of writing, Google are still in negotiations with music labels regarding revenue deals. Until such time as these deals are completed it’s difficult to speculate on what Google may offer in the way of matching, or who your music would be matched against (other users, or an online music store).
Regarding unauthorised copies being uploaded to Google Music, Google have said they won’t tolerate pirated music, though what technologies they will use to detect pirate music isn’t clear. Some music will be identifiable through watermarking and sonic finger printing, but a good percentage will not be able to be verified as authenticate or not. For example multiple legitimate rips format shifted from CD using the same ripping agent and bitrate will be identical.
Google Music offers music streaming of your uploaded content, from any internet connected computer, and streaming and download to Android devices. No other devices currently supported. Pricing tiers not yet available.
Apple iCloud offers music syncing between up to 10 authorised devices, but no streaming option and no web browser access. Other than computers, only Apple devices are supported.
As yet, many of the finer details, and changes that competition will bring about, are still unknown.
As yet, I haven’t been able to trial iCloud, so I can’t show you what it looks like or tell you how it performs. It will be integrated into itunes (I imagine).
I have been testing the Google Music beta, and I have to say it’s impressive, given the contraints mentioned above. I have noticed that while music manager is uploading and music is playing via the web interface, your internet connection is hammered pretty hard. Music can sometimes stutter. This would no doubt improve once uploading is completed. I’ve been uploading a 2000 song dataset over a few days, but I haven’t been connected the whole time.
Here’s a screen shot of the Google Music web app in FireFox 5: