Over the past few months we have seen a shift in the way companies are thinking about music. First we saw Google and Amazon announce new cloud based services, allowing users to upload their personal collections for instant availability and streaming to any device. Shortly after Apple responded with iTunes Match, which (similar to Google and Amazon) allows you to store your music in the iCloud, for instant access from any Mac or iOS based device.
Personally I think this could be the final nail in the coffin for the traditional MP3 player, with the future being focused on Internet connected end points, such as smartphones and tablets. This means instead of having a massive library stored locally, you will instead buy and store your music in the cloud and access it either by downloading it to an end point or streaming directly over the Internet.
The great thing about this model is that you no longer need to worry about local storage or backup and you now have access to your entire library (not just the stuff you synchronised that morning) from anywhere in the world. It also enables new ways of sharing what you are listening to via social integration and allows you to purchase music as a service (monthly or yearly) instead of per song or by album. This is an incredibly powerful prospect and, if implemented well, could be the next major milestone for the music industry.
Unfortunately, up to this point, these new services have only been available in the US, however thanks to Lifehacker it was discovered that you only need to "appear from the US" during the initial sign-up and from that point on you can use Google Music from anywhere in the world. The only limitation is that you can't access the online store at this time, but you can upload your own music collection (which is what most people will be doing anyway).
So does Google Music live up to the hype and will this new cloud model be the revolution that I am predicting?
To get started with Google Music all you need is a Google account (for example Google Mail). If you already have an account simply login to music.google.com, accept the user agreement and you will have access to upload 20,000 songs for free.
Once logged in you are presented with a very clean, very simple user interface which is something that I wish Apple would take note of with iCloud. To get started you have two options, either "Upload Music" or "Shop for Music".
For this example I am going to upload some music from my Mac. The first thing you need to do is download a small application (the Music Manager) which guides you through the upload process. As you can see from the image below there are three upload options, I chose to pick my music from a folder (as I started with a small collection), however you could set it loose on iTunes, where you can select your entire library or individual playlists.
Once you have selected your music, the Music Manager automatically starts the upload process. With large music collections this could obviously take a long time, however thankfully you don't need to wait for your entire collection to upload, because as soon as one song is available in the cloud the Music Manager automatically moves on.
At this point the rest of your music will be uploaded in the background, but any music that is already available can instantly start being played. This is a very useful feature and reduces the pain of the initial upload.
At this point the Music Manager setup process is complete. To check on your music uploads or to launch Google Music you can simply click the menu bar icon (as shown in the image below). This icon can also be disabled for people who like to keep things minimal (like me).
The great thing about Google Music is that it will always keep an eye on your iTunes library, playlists or selected music folders. So, for example, if you add a new album it will instantly be uploaded to Google Music (this feature can be turned off). One thing to note is that once the music has been uploaded to the cloud you are safe to remove (or move) the local copy, as this will not modify the cloud version. To delete music from the cloud you must login to Google Music.
If you want to change any of Google Music's settings, for example selected folders or upload options, simply access the Music Manager Preferences pane from the menu bar icon or Mac OS X System Preferences.
That's it! You now have your music in the cloud for instant availability from music.google.com and most modern smartphones (Android and iPhone). Playing music is as simple as clicking the song or album you are looking for and it will immediately start streaming. You can also add search for music, tag favorites and create custom playlists.
So far my experience of Google Music has been very positive. Everything has worked exactly as advertised, with a painless upload process and an elegant, responsive user interface that is very simple to use. All of my uploaded music has been readily available and streaming starts almost instantly, even over 3G. The only issue I have encountered is when I first tried to stream music to my iPhone 4S using Safari, which for some reason required me to reset the browser before any song would start playing.
As I am not an Android user I can't comment on the mobile integration (as iOS doesn't currently have a native app), however I have heard everything works well and I believe if Google Music becomes a success, then this will be a great selling feature for Android devices. Let's just hope that Google continue to invest and improve this service and don't drop it like the ill fated Wave and Buzz.