In contrast with Apple and Amazon, Google isn't charging for its cloud-based music storage and streaming service.
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In a challenge to Apple, Amazon, and dozens of music startups, Google has launched Google Music, an online music platform that combines the company's cloud-based streaming service with Google+ and Android Market.
In May, Google introduced a preview version of its music streaming offering, Music Beta by Google, an effort that has been overshadowed by Facebook's recent partnership with a more popular music streaming service, Spotify.
At a press event Wednesday in Los Angeles, Jamie Rosenberg, director of digital content for Google, said that service, now called Google Music, is available to everyone in the United States. He described it as an effort to improve the digital music experience.
Here's what you need to know:
1. The most notable improvement is that Google Music allows users to upload and store songs they've already purchased at no charge. Apple, the dominant digital music seller, charges $25 annually for uploading and storing music not purchased through iTunes. Amazon charges $20 annually to store digital music not acquired from Amazon's MP3 Store.
"Other cloud services think you have to pay to listen to music you already own," said Rosenberg. "We don't."
2. Google Music brings with it the ability to share music through Google+. Recipients of shared songs can play them once in their entirety, at no charge.
3. Google Music also brings with it Android Market integration: You can purchase songs from the new music section in Android Market using a computer or, soon, a mobile device--Google says its Android Market music store will be accessible to U.S. users of Android 2.2+ devices in a few days.
4. As an added incentive to sign up for Google Music, Google has made available some exclusive recordings, many of which are free, from the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Busta Rhymes, Pearl Jam, Shakira, Dave Matthews Band, and Tiesto.
5. Google is offering independent musicians what it offers Android developers: a market for their content. The Google Music artist hub allows musicians to set up Android Market pages to sell their own music.
6. Owners of iOS devices can partake of Google Music if they wish: In September, Google introduced an HTML5 mobile Web app that can be accessed by visiting music.google.com using a mobile browser. Google also has a Music Manager desktop app for Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows.
7. To listen to music stored in Google Music when offline, songs need to be "pinned," which is to say designated for local storage with a pin marker.
Google's Android Market music store will be competing directly with Apple's iTunes Store, which began selling digital songs in 2003 and has since expanded to include apps, books, podcasts, and video. iTunes generated almost $1.5 billion in revenue for Apple during is Q4 2011 quarter.
Apple's dominance in the digital download market has already led to one prominent casualty: Over the summer, Wal-Mart closed its eight-year-old Music Download Store, having failed to win market share despite undercutting Apple on price.
In a report earlier this year, research firm Forrester noted that only 10% of European online consumers buy digital music and only 18% of U.S. online consumers do so, one percent less than in 2009.
Google itself appears at least partially to blame for the hurdles facing the company's digital music store: According to Forrester, Google's YouTube has emerged as most widely adopted music service.
"No other music service has achieved the reach or usage of YouTube," wrote Forrester analyst Mark Mulligan in January. "While successive music startups have failed--and online video's momentum has gone to midform destinations like Hulu--YouTube has consolidated its role as the Web's No. 1 music destination."
Compounding the problem are the divergent ways in which different age groups listen to and acquire music, with adults skewing toward CDs and radio, young adults favoring iTunes and BitTorrent, and teens preferring mobile music services and YouTube.
But given its ownership of Google Music, Android, Google+, and YouTube, Google may just have cobbled together a music experience that offers something for everyone.
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