Google

YouTube’s (rumored) music service on hold

Wednesday, December 4, 2013 - 11:00am

But probably not for long. Keep in mind that everything written about YouTube’s entry into the subscription-music market is rumor, based on undisclosed sources. The latest twist: AllThingsD reports the rumored service will not meet its rumored launch timeframe (end of year), but is rumored to be planning a 2014 debut.

Despite the Big Question surrounding this speculation, we believe that Google will indeed put YouTube into play against Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, and other online jukebox platforms. What is the Big Question? This: Where is the added value to justify a subscription? YouTube is already the dominant listening service for teens, absolutely free of charge, easily shareable, robustly social, astonishing in scope, and rapidly expanding every day. 

But despite the odd fact that YouTube is already in the market, and dominating portions of it, Google probably perceives a business imperative to formalize the service and capture some portion of its roughly one-billion users as paying customers.

According to AllThingsD sources, the delay (in a timeline not acknowledged by the company) is due to product development complications, and not due to content licensing complications. Google already has relationships with music owners on both the YouTube and All Access sides of its music business. 

Google leak fortifies rumor of a YouTube music service

Monday, December 2, 2013 - 12:15pm

Although we and most other observers have been presuming an imminent YouTube music service to be ordained fact, it is merely a widely-reported rumor. That rumor got a strengthened spine when the Android Police website performed a “teardown” (examination of code) on the latest version of YouTube’s Android app.

Scrutinizing code can sometimes reveal placeholders of functions planned for the future, but not yet implemented. To code-savvy snoopers, those strings are like Easter eggs. In this case, they offer scant but intriguing glimpses that could match up to the rumored music service. 

The findings:

  • A name: Music Pass;
  • A reference to offline playback, a feature usually associated with subscription listening platforms;
  • A feature referenced as “background listening,” which doesn’t make much sense in a video service, but is perfectly sensible for a music service;
  • A feature called “Uninterrupted music,” with this marketing string: “No ads on millions of songs.”

Android Police also found graphic icons associated with the placeholder features.

In light of these revelations, we continue to presume that Google is readying a music subscription service on its YouTube platform, and our core question holds firm. What added value will Google bring to the service which might persuade YouTube users to pay for a platform which is already free, opulently stocked with music, and the go-to source of listening for teens? We need more Easter eggs to answer that question.

The real threat of Google Music on Apple devices

Monday, November 18, 2013 - 11:55am

Last week’s drop of Google’s All Access music subscription app into Apple’s app store was a milestone moment in both the music-service wars and the larger tech-ecosystem land grab. We had fun with our “Google invades Apple” headline, and every media site covering the convergence of music and Internet hit the same note.

The invasion metaphor is apt, more than just for its imagery of two tech/media giants engaged in business warfare. Google’s Play Music All Access, awkwardly-named thought it might be, offers a more complete music platform than Apple does -- and likewise for Spotify, Rhapsody, Pandora, and Rdio. The competitive thrust is more feature-specific than merely inserting the Google brand into the music choices of iPhone and iPod users. Its features connect with the three major ways that people connect with Internet-delivered music as a 21st-century type of radio.

Three Types of Listening

There are three types of app listening. By “app listening” we mean listening that happens through a desktop program, a web browser, or a mobile app. There are three cornerstones of app listening:

  • Radio: Broadcasters understandably bristle at the re-definition of “radio,” which used to denote a technology, not a behavior. Now, “radio” commonly means lean-back app listening that simulates the traditional passive radio experience. Pandora is the poster child for “Internet radio,” but Pandora is more interactive than thousands of Internet pureplay stations which don’t offer any customization.
  • Jukebox: The “celestial jukebox” is lean-forward listening in which access to music replaces ownership of music. Spotify, Rhapsody, and Radio are leading examples of app services that provide access to huge song catalogs on demand, with suites of features that personalize the jukebox around the user’s taste.
  • Cloud storage: Even with the rise of Internet radio and the celestial jukebox, people own personal music collections in digital file formats. Amazon, Apple, and others provide apps that allow uploading those files to the cloud, from which they can be accessed from any connected device.

Integrating these three modes of listening is not easy, or common. How do personal collections (the ownership model) fit into subscription services (the access model), and how do those users integrate the existing value of their collections with the new value of music access?

It’s Called “All Access” for a Reason

That is the key issue addressed by Google Play Music All Access, and a key selling point of its subscription service. All Access provides the usual access features -- jukeboxing, playlisting, favoriting, downloading for offline listening. At the same time, All Access (living up to its name) is a cloud storage service which invites users to upload 20,000 tracks. Those collections are integrated into the jukebox service, and intelligence derived from scanning the owned music helps personalize the music Google suggests to the user.

Apple has a cloud service, too, and of course iTunes is the world’s biggest music store, still a champion of the ownership model, widely predicted to be waning. The two-month-old iTunes Radio service provides lean-back radio-style listening, a second rung of the app-listening ladder. But Apple does not have a celestial jukebox function for random access and full listening of songs and albums.

That missing piece is the opening through which Google has driven its All Access platform, and why the invasion is meaningful. Google provides both models -- access to an owned collection on the same platform which accesses the celestial jukebox, and plays radio-style streams.

Google craftily makes it easy to convert an iTunes collection to Google’s cloud. Doing so gives Apple users a full, three-point app-listening experience on iPhones and iPods. Google provides the purchasing dimension too, through Google Play song-buying, which emulates the synergy of Apple’s iTunes Radio and iTunes Store linkage.

It’s not only iTunes that could be hurt by Google. Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody lack cloud integration of personal collections. Google sits in the iOS store as the complete problem-solver -- in that light, the awkward “All Access” name is justified. The extra value it brings signifies why Google invaded Apple. Time will tell how disruptive the invasion will be.

Google Glass eases into mobile music

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 12:45pm

Google’s wearable Glass product, which clamps onto the user’s face like glasses and provides on-command field-of-vision computing, is reportedly stepping into music in a few ways.

First, predictably, Glass will interact with the Google Play Music service, enabling song, album, and playlist listening through voice command. This function is available now via a “sideloading” procedure which requires using Android Developer Tools -- beyond the ken of most users, but a clear indicator that the feature will get baked into Glass soon.

Glass would need some way to get the audio into the user’s ear, and USA Today reports that Google has designed ear buds for Glass.

In a related Glass update, Google has introduced sound search -- a feature wherein the user asks the device what music is playing within earshot, and the song is identified. That sort of music recognition intelligence is not new, Shazam being the most prominent application.

The mobile music trend is pointing toward moving its controls off the smartphone, onto smaller and more wearable devices. Directionally, this trend matches the thrust of streaming music services, which seek to deliver highly customized audio untethered from the geographic restriction of radio and the desktop restriction of traditional computing.

Smartwatches represent one product manifestation of the trend. The recently released Samsung Gear smartwatch is a wrist-worn controller for some Samsung Galaxy smartphones. The usage theory driving this sort of product is that the phone, pocketable though it be, is too clunky a device for easy music management on the go. (And management of some other smartphone functions.) Putting music control on the wrist is certainly convenient, and harkens back to strap-on MP3 players of several years ago.

Glass is the most high-profile example of a wearable computing device. The proximity of the thing to the user’s ears, and its native voice control, makes it natural as a music player. It doesn’t hurt that Glass is sitting right on the user’s ears, too.

Where does radio fit in? If our music systems will eventually move right onto our bodily accessories, radio should focus on distributing there as importantly as distributing into the car. The integration might happen most felicitously via aggregating apps like iHeartRadio, but we can also imagine AM/FM receiver technology adapting to Glass and other devices that will inevitably come to market, much as NextRadio is pushing enhanced radio into smartphones.

By the way, the next step in the mobile product evolution would be embeddable devices, in which our bodies become the devices. The “yuck factor” might make that scenario unimaginable … but technology does march on. What stream (or frequency) are you tuned to?

YouTube continues search for new music identity with awards show

Monday, November 4, 2013 - 1:10pm

The YouTube Music Awards played last night with an anti-TV programming sensibility, to a small anti-TV audience. A reported peak concurrent audience of 220,000 individuals streamed the event. Total viewership finalized to 873,000 people, according to the live page. The thumbs up/down voting system registered 79 percent positive response.

The live audience represented less than one tenth of one percent of YouTube’s claimed 1-billion users.

YouTube is authoritatively rumored to be ramping up a music service that would formalize the platform’s unofficial status as the most-used online listening platform. Hosting a music awards spectacle makes sense in the double context of a music streaming site, and a social network. The relative lack of interest among users might reflect the futility of emulating old-media formats in new-media services. Despite the implications of YouTube’s name (a new kind of television “tube”), the platform’s core competency is facilitating and organizing user-uploaded content, not imitating TV shows.

Questions about the purported music service loom, the largest being how Google will add value to a platform which already has immense value built into it. (See RAIN’s analysis here.) YouTube’s runaway success has perhaps sent it running in directions unforeseen when Google acquired the thing in 2006. If the Music Awards show was a fun stab in the dark, well and good. But as a test of making YouTube something it is essentially not, the YouTube Music Awards didn’t seem to work. 

REVIEW: New Rhapsody features in Android

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

It is a busy month for Rhapsody, the godparent of music services. During October the Internet jukebox launched new “radio” features that enabled artist-centric listening (trailing some other services by a few years, but still), closed an important partnership with international telecom giant Telefonica, and started giving free service to CD buyers at Best Buy.

September wasn’t so buoyant. First came rumors of a leadership shakeup, then came the actual shakeup, accompanied by a broad swath of layoffs.

Back to October. Rhapsody continues its strong month by giving its Android app users an updated experience that adds these key features:

  • EQ 
  • A sleep timer 
  • Enhanced programming 
  • WiFi-only downloads
  • Log of recent searches
  • Backskipping in Stations mode 

The on-board equalizer (EQ) is welcome, especially in mobile listening through earphones of varying quality. Most bargain earbuds don’t have the sonic capacity to bring EQ’ing fully to life (we’re looking at you, Apple), but for those very deficits it helps to punch the highs and lows. And with the advent of WiFi speakers in the home, massaging the sound in the app is a forward-looking feature.

As it happens, Rhapsody is looking backward and forward. The computer desktop app (yes, there is one, and while it’s no Spotify in most regards, it is a robust and reliable piece of software) has had a lovely pop-out EQ widget for over two years -- and it’s better than the new Android EQ. The desktop EQ has twice as many frequency bands: ten instead of five for mobile. And wow, does it sound better in side-by-side listening over the same speaker system.

We were hoping that the Android EQ would flip into a ten-band equalizer when in landscape mode, which would have inspired us to inaugurate a Cool Feature of the Month award. We twirled the phone around like a cheerleader’s baton, but sadly, no frequency-band enhancement was forthcoming.

The selection of EQ presets is reduced in the Android version, too, compared to the desktop. This seems like an unnecessary deprivation, especially when our favorite (“Presence Lift”) has been cruelly struck from the menu. We shouldn’t believe that Rhapsody is targeting our sensibilities particularly, but the evidence tempts our paranoid instincts.

A new sleep timer is nicely functional, and a welcome convenience to anyone who drifts off to music. (Provided they think ahead.) It shows up in the menu only when you’re in the Now Playing screen, and offers shut-off times of 15, 30, 56, 60, and 120 minutes.

Rhapsody is stepping into the “360 programming” trend with exclusive articles and videos. they are loaded into the Featured section, where new items are collected as Posts, as in a blog. That’s attractive packaging -- it seems up-to-date and timely. Band spotlights comprise the most interesting items. New house-built playlists are promoted there, too. Lou Reed-inspired tracks were all over the place during our testing, and some historical surveys (e.g. The Velvet Underground’s Legacy, and Hits You Never Heard Of, part 11).

It seems as if Rhapsody is allowing its editors to indulge their idiosyncratic passions. One article compared two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with audio samples -- our Baroque brains loved it, but we’re the first to admit that this particular feature lives way down on the long tail.

Finally, there is the introduction of backskipping in Radio mode. You can go backward to revisit a track that already played. With this feature, Rhapsody dishes out a major piece of interactive candy, and waves goodbye to Spotify in the rear-view mirror. Rdio is back there in the dust, too, along with iTunes Radio. Backskipping is not a unique innovation -- the arduously named Google Play Music All Access has it, too, with a beautiful graphic interface. But competing skip-to-skip with a big-media service is a perfect way for Rhapsody to start overcoming its arthritic image as the streaming grandparent.

All in all, an ambitious, even gleeful update during a tumultuous autumn for Rhapsody. And it appears that Android users are getting the juiciest bits first these days.

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