Google Music Beta has just went live. It offers users free storage of up to 20,000 songs, playable from any computer or Android device.

The new service is accessible from any Android smart phone.
Service won't directly compete with Apple's offerings, but may threaten them via Android tie-in or piracy

Many have tried and failed.  Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iTunes, which recently celebrated its tenth birthday remains the most powerful force in the digital music business, having stomped out some would-be rivals and held others -- like Inc. (AMZN) and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT) -- off.

But Apple may finally have met its match -- music beta by Google (better known as "Google Music").

I. A True Competitor?

Perhaps no market player has figured out how to beat Apple quite as well as Google Inc. (GOOG).  The younger firm has left its Cupertino foe far behind in the smart phone market, succeeding where others like Palm and Microsoft failed.

In the tablet sector, Android appears the only true challenger, at present, to Apple's dominance.

Many had long believed that Google would jump at the opportunity to throw down its gauntlet and challenge Apple's thriving iTunes music business.  But even as Google diversified its content delivery, buying YouTube and launching special music video channels, a discrete music delivery service remained unrealized.

But sometimes an idea is too attractive to forever go unfulfilled, and Google has at last announced a music service.

II. Something Old, Something New

Google's music beta is here, announced by Google at its annual I/O Conference for developers (similar to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference).  But the service isn't quite what some had imagined.

Thus far Google hasn't presented the service as a direct competitor to iTunes.  However, it can be viewed as such in some ways (more on this later).

Instead, what Google is offering is essentially cloud-based music storage, as some predicted.

Under its free beta program, users will get to upload 20,000 songs.  Those songs can be remotely listened to on any computer and Android mobile device.  

To get access to the service you'll have to visit the Google Music homepage and apply for an invite.  Google hasn't revealed how it will determine who gets one or how many people will get one, but anyone with a registered Google services account can apply.

The service comes with a slick feature set.  On Honeycomb tablets you can navigate using an interface resembling Apple's popular cover-flow.  And play lists you create automatically sync to your account, allowing you to use them from anywhere.  You will even be able to play songs offline, as the computer client stores local copies of the most recently played songs.

For Macs and Windows computers, the software client is dubbed "Music Manager".  It allows you easy uploads to your cloud collection.  On your Android phone, no app client has been announced yet, but you can access your collection by logging into the Google Music web site.  A dedicated app will likely land soon as well.

III. Lots of Potential, Lots of Questions

Apple recently purchased the domain iCloud for a tidy $4.5M USD and is rumored to be preparing a music locker of its own.  But for now Google has beaten Apple to the punch.

It's hard to argue the appeal of Google Music.  It's difficult to imagine a music enthusiast in their right mind not wanting to partake in Google's free beta trial.

But the question becomes where the service goes from here.  Thus far Google has been quiet about whether the released service will require a subscription fee, and if so, how much that fee will be.  It's hard to imagine that hosting hundreds of thousands of customers, each with up to 20,000 music files -- even low-quality MP3s -- is fiscally feasible for Google.  And the term "free beta" seemingly implies that it's a limited time offer.

Aside from what subscription fees might be, another question will be whether Google will actually start selling tracks on its clients, like Apple does.  For now Google has mentioned nothing of such plans, painting the service as a complement to music sellers like Apple and Amazon.  It writes:

You can upload music files from any folder or add your iTunes® library and all of your playlists. And when you add new music to your computer, it can be automatically added to your music collection online.

Whether or not it decides to directly compete with Apple, the service likely will be a blow to Apple for a couple of reasons.  First, it allows users to transfer their tracks to a supposedly solid third party client and no longer be tied down by iTunes.  Second, it gives Android devices another unique edge over Apple's iPhone -- which currently has no access to Google Music.  And last, but not least, it appears to offers equal service to users who store pirated copies of songs, rather than legitimately purchased copies from Apple or other sources.

That last point leads to some other interesting questions, with regard to the service details.  Thus far Google has not mentioned any sort of copy protection or content monitoring system.  At this point its possible Google will allow pirated tracks (which in many cases are identical bitwise to unprotected, legitimately purchased tracks) to be uploaded to its cloud.

But doing so could lead to some massive lawsuits down the road for Google.  Given Google's YouTube clashes with the media industry, it should be interesting to see how its approach to copyright enforcement plays out and what the industry's reaction is.  Equally important will be how the U.S., other governments, and their respective court systems feel about the legality of the new service.

Clearly there's a lot of unknowns, but from the information Google has shared, Google Music has the potential to be an amazing, and perhaps unmatched service, giving users access to most or all of their music library anywhere in their world -- even from their mobile phone.

For all the questions, Google has answered one thing -- it's serious about music.

In related news, Google announced details today about Android "Ice Cream Sandwich" 3.5 at the I/O Conference.

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