Google Music: iTunes Killer or Bing Breaker?
It's been quite the rollercoaster ride for Google Music. The service hasn't yet launched—or even been officially or unofficially announced—yet it's already been hyped, lauded, downgraded, debunked, and thoroughly mocked by the technology press. Whether or not the service is anything but wishful thinking is subject to debate. One thing seems certain, however: the possibility has reignited something that's been long dormant amongst industry pundits—the desire to see a respectable challenger to iTunes' unflappable dominance, finally.
If anyone is in a position to challenge Apple in this space, surely it's Google (Microsoft has already made several unsuccessful attempts of its own). The company certainly has the resources and creativity to launch a music property successfully. It seems that the company has been on somewhat less-than-friendly terms with Cupertino as of late, ever since CEO Eric Schmidt stepped down from Apple's board amidst an FTC probe. The relationship between the two companies has seemingly become all the more strained as number of recently announced Android handsets have emerged as some of the strongest candidates for the long sought after iPhone killer.
Is taking down iTunes really a part of Google's master plan, however? Sure, relations between the two companies have been a bit more strained since the company entered into the mobile OS space, but a play at the music market may well be rooted in attacking Google's perennial white whale: Microsoft. After all, recent rumors position the potential Google Music service as a function of search, rather than a store unto itself. Such a move might be more harmful to a feature-packed search engine like Bing, rather than a devoted music store like iTunes.
At present, we don't know a lot about Google Music. The prospective service first came to light in a big way last week via a post by Michael Arrington titled "New Google Music Service Launch Imminent". In the post, the service was referred to as Google Audio, though a number of names (including Google Music and One Box) have since emerged as candidates. What little information we were hearing about the site was coming from sources at major labels that were, reportedly, in the process of striking content deals with Google.
Wired later floated the idea that the service was more search than music store. A number of existing music services, including Lala and iLike, were named as potential content providers. Essentially, the service would provide a search box (hence that name One Box) where users could search for music streams from the aforementioned sites. Google, reportedly, is hosting an event this week to introduce the feature.
If Wired's description is to be believed, Google Music sounds like a mainstream version of GrooveShark, Skreemr, or The Pirate Bay. Those sites have long maintained that they should not be prosecuted for offering copyrighted material, as they are simply providing a Google-like function (i.e., they don't host content, rather they simply let users search for it). Of course, Google's service would be more on the up and up were it tied to sites like Lala and iLike, which are in good standing with the music labels.
This concept of a search-integrated service makes a lot more sense than a from-scratch iTunes competitor. Search, let's not forget, is still Google's bread and butter (along with ad sales). It's also what Google does best. Applying the company's existing search expertise to music discovery is almost a no-brainer. In fact, a number of third-party sites already implement Google search for more legally questionable music discovery.
Bolstered by Google's name and seemingly bottomless resources, the introduction of such a service would prove a boon to Lala, the MySpace-owned iLike, and any other site that might partner with the company, at the expense of existing streaming sites like Rhapsody and Napster. No doubt, it would also have the blessing of the major record labels that would be happy to have an amplified version of the revenue streams they currently enjoy. The service would likely not prove much of a threat to the iTunes downloading model, however. (That challenge, it seems, will fall on Spotify, when the well-loved music service eventually lands in the U.S.) iTunes has never been a great engine for music discovery: it's a destination primarily for those who know what they're looking for, which is part of the reason the app does so well with top-40 radio singles.
In that respect, even with Google's firepower, Google Music may well remain a minor player. The company may be content to have such a site exist more as a conduit for music discovery, rather than a destination unto itself. The primary benefit of such a site would be a means by which Google can ramp up its search—Google music would ultimately be yet another cool feature integrated into users' search results. Do a search for your favorite band, and your search results will include sites, videos (courtesy of YouTube), pictures (courtesy of Google Image Search), and now music (courtesy, apparently, of iLike and Lala).
For the first time in a long time, Google is feeling a bit of competition in the search market, thanks to Microsoft's Bing, a site intent on shoving as many verticals onto a page as possible. Google may rightfully see music as the next logical step in the current search wars, which, as of late, have been dominated by the race to index Twitter. A fair amount of song indexing is already done by proposed partner sites. Google's primary job would be to aggregate these results and position them in a centralized, high-trafficked location.
Google Music wouldn't revolutionize the struggling music industry. However, it might help to stave some of the seemingly perpetual fragmentation, offering a centralized location for music lovers outside of iTunes, who are more interested in discover new music, rather than download the songs they hear on the radio and Gossip Girl. Most importantly to Google, however, it would remind everyone that search is still the company's main priority.