Google is preparing to launch a test version of a new digital music service that will enable users to upload their music libraries to the company's servers.
CNET reported in March that Google was testing its music service internally and was ready to unveil the long-anticipated service. And that is what Google intends to do tomorrow at the company's I/O Developer Conference in San Francisco, according to Zahavah Levine, one of the executives in charge of getting the music service off the ground.
While Google and Levine have been negotiating to obtain licenses from the four largest record companies for more than a year, the test version of the service will launch without licensing. This is the same strategy that Amazon employed when it launched its cloud-music service in March.
"We're launching a beta service called Music Beta by Google that lets' users upload their personal music libraries to their own account on Google's servers," Levine told CNET. Users can "access those libraries anytime or anywhere from Web-connected devices," she said.
Levine said Android owners will be able to access their libraries when offline as well.
While the service is still in beta, users will be able to join by invitation only. Initially, Google is prioritizing attendees of the I/O conference and owners of Motorola's Xoom tablets, which is the first device to use Android 3.0. After that, the company will then turn to ordinary users who request an invitation, which they can do at Music.Google.com. To access the service, users will require a browser that supports flash--that means no Apple devices--or on any Android device that's version 2.2 or higher, Levine said. The service will only be offered in the United States for the time being and while in beta it will be offered free of charge.
For more than a year, all the talk about cloud music, the term used to describe third-party computing, was about Google and Apple. Then Amazon beat both companies by unveiling a digital music locker service that allows users to store songs on Amazon's servers and then listen to their collections via computers with a Web browser.
What this appears to mean is that the labels are getting pushed out of the cloud. Any service with ambitions of operating a cloud service has to consider that there's an alternative to seeking licenses from the top labels.
The labels have insisted that offering most cloud music features would require licenses from them. But they didn't do much, at least publicly, to discourage Amazon from going out with its service and that hasn't sat well with executives at competing services. Some interpreted the labels' silence to mean that they didn't have any legal recourse against Amazon.
Amazon and Google appeared to have built their services to carefully avoid violating any copyrights. They didn't make any additional copies of songs. Users upload songs to both services and those same copies are what the users hear when they access their libraries. If Amazon or Google, say, scanned the hard drives of its subscribers to ensure that they owned the music and then streamed back to them a company-created copy--a process known as "scan and match," Amazon and Google would have needed a license.
"This is a personal storage service that doesn't require licenses anymore than sales of an iPod or a hard drive requires licenses," Levine said. "It's like a user making personal copies of their own music and transferring it to their iPod, but rather than a portable hard drive they have a hard drive in the cloud."
Almost certainly, Google doesn't want a copyright fight with the labels. The U.S. government has been holding the company's feet to the fire on doing more antipiracy work. Last month, a group of congressmen chided Google for allegedly looking the other way when it came to piracy. It wouldn't look good right now for the largest music companies to point copyright accusations against the company.
But Google seems intent on giving Android users a new way to store and access music and at the very least this beta service will pressure the labels into offering better cloud-licensing terms.
The good news for digital music fans and Android owners is that they will now have one of the biggest Web companies in the world vying for their attention. Google can boast that it has already built YouTube into one of the Internet's dominant music destinations. It can also pitch its service to the exploding number of Android users. Each day, more than 350,000 Android phones are activated globally.
"With the widespread adoption of digital music, music has become fundamental to two things we care very much about," Levine said. "The mobile experience is one, and the power of the Web to improve people's lives."
Correction: May 10, 2011, 4:55 a.m. PT: This story mistakenly transcribed several words in one of Zahavah Levine's comments. She said "sales of an iPod."