This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
by Larry Magid
Last week was big for online music. Apple finally got around to launching its long-awaited iTunes Match service and Google Music graduated from beta test to an almost full-fledged online and mobile music platform.
Although they have a very different look and feel, both services do pretty much the same thing: manage music on your computer and mobile devices, store music for you in the cloud and make it easier to access music on different devices, even if the music files aren’t on those devices.
Both services work with PCs and Macs but, as you’d expect, the Google service is optimized for Android gear while Apple’s works best with Apple’s iOS devices — iPhones, iPads, Apple TV and iPod touch. You can, however, play Google Music on an iPhone from the Google Music website.
My experience with both is so far pretty good. But when it comes to ease of use, Apple is mostly ahead of Google, with one major exception that I’ll get to later.
To use iTunes Match you must first download the latest version of iTunes to your PC or Mac and pay $24.99 for an annual subscription. You then make sure that the folders on your hard disk that contain music are added to the iTunes library and tell iTunes to start matching.
iTunes gathers information about what’s in your library and attempts to match your files with music from the iTunes Store. If it finds a match, it’s done. Since the file already exists on iTunes there is no need to upload anything from your computer. Whether you bought it from another music service, ripped it from a CD or stole it via a peer-to-peer file sharing service, Apple simply verifies that you have a copy of the song and allows you to play it via the cloud or download it to any PC or Mac with iTunes or any iOS device. You can’t use iTunes Match on Android or any other non-Apple smartphone or tablet.
If it finds files that aren’t in iTunes, it uploads them from your disk, which can take a while. Not only does it do this with music, but with any audio files. That’s great for me, because I store podcasts and my recorded CBS News broadcasts on my computer and now I have an automatic backup of them in the cloud.
When you configure a portable iOS device to use Match, you are warned that it will delete all the music files on the device itself and replace that music with pointers to the music that’s stored on iCloud. Of course, you have the option to download songs or playlists. But until you do, you can only access them while connected via Wi-Fi or a fast enough cellular connection.
The only way you can tell if a song is on your device is to look for a cloud icon next to the title. If the cloud is there, it’s not on the device. On an iOS device, the only way to limit your options to music that’s on your device (which is all you’ll care about if you’re offline), is to exit the music app, go to Settings, scroll down to Music, and turn off “Show All Music.” Google thoughtfully placed an “offline music only” menu option in its Android music player. Apple could have made this a lot easier and more intuitive.
Google Music lets you store up to 20,000 songs in the cloud for free but, unlike Apple’s Match service, you have to upload all of them, which can take a very long time if you have a lot of music. Once uploaded, you can easily play them on a Mac or PC or Android device.
To my pleasant surprise, the service works great on iOS devices by going to music.google.com from the Safari browser. If you put a bookmark to that page on your desktop, you can easily access it from then on. Although Match’s $24.99 a year is a fair price to access all your songs, Google’s free is even better, so I expect even a lot of iOS users to take advantage of the service.
In a direct challenge to Apple’s iTunes Store, Google now lets you purchase music from the Android Market from an Android device or a personal computer. Google has deals with three of the four major record labels and many independent labels. But Apple has it beat because it also has a deal with Warner Music. For the time being at least, Google is giving away a lot of free music, so it’s worth a visit to see what they’re giving away.
Google has also integrated its music service into Google+, giving members the ability to share music with their friends, who can listen to their songs at least once for free.
So in addition to competing phones and tablets, Google and Apple are now competing head-to-head on music services. I wonder what it would cost Apple to purchase the iSearch.com domain from its current owner and start offering Web search, as a way of getting even with Google.