Storm Clouds on the Horizon
Google is supposedly facing early struggles in its efforts to become a dominant player in the online music arena (pun intended), and the company will need to address several issues if it hopes to compete effectively with iTunes and various popular music subscription services. According to a recent article by Gary Sandoval for Cnet, Google Music is slow out of the gates with its entry into the downloadable music arena. In Sandoval’s opinion, this may be a symptom of a larger issue, but for the purposes of this article, I will limit my focus to the music aspect. Google is facing issues along 3 fronts in its efforts to become a viable music option among its Android audience and to become a force in the digital music industry overall: its music player, its cloud storage service, and its online Play Store music catalog.
The issues Google needs to address are as follows:
The music player:
- While the main app is well-designed, sporting a clean interface and surprisingly functional for such a new app, its widget options are sorely lacking (I should say “option,” as there is only one homescreen widget available). The homescreen widget only comes in one size, with no customization options and only 3 buttons (as does the notification pulldown widget): play, forward, and one that opens the main app. The most popular music players have several widget options, and each widget usually provides a variety of options for look and feel. If Google wants more people to buy music from its store, it must provide better widget options for its music app.
- Lack of “extras” - while some will find it’s simple, easy-to-use interface appealing, there are no compelling features to set it apart from the competition, save its ability to access its users’ full libraries stored in the cloud. Popular players such as Poweramp and the upcoming CyanogenMod 9 “Apollo” player (currently available in an unofficial beta here) offer theme/skin options, and more advanced settings, such as allowing users to decide whether the “back” button skips to the previous track on first tap or goes back to the beginning of the currently playing track. Some might view that as a minor issue, but it is only one example of the advanced options rival players offer. Again, adding more features to the music app will likely lead to increased music sales in the Google Play Store.
- There are plenty of rival cloud services that Android fans can use to store their music libraries in the cloud, but few (if any) that offer access to third-party players. People who are unhappy with the spartan nature of the native Google Music player are nevertheless forced to use it if they want access to their libraries in the cloud. “Unofficial” efforts are currently underway to provide third-party access to users’ cloud-stored libraries, which I’ll discuss in more detail in a later article.
- Google has already faced significant resistance from the major labels regarding cloud-based access to users’ libraries (as Amazon, Apple, and others have), but this issue would become much more thorny if these cloud-stored libraries could be accessed by third-party apps. If Google is to provide or at least allow third-party access to users’ libraries (as it really should), it will have to make sure that DRM/security concerns are addressed so that third-party access doesn’t deteriorate into another pirating/file-sharing scandal. Perhaps Google can remind the major labels that users already have the ability to upload their non-DRM music to far less restrictive cloud storage services.
- Only 3 of the 4 major labels have allowed Google to sell music from their catalogs, with Warner Music being the lone holdout. This is to be expected at such an early stage of development, and even Apple had to overcome obstacles with the major labels when it first launched iTunes. However, unlike Apple, Google is playing catch-up from far behind, and also faces stiff competition from subscription services such as Rhapsody and Spotify.
- Even within the 3 major labels whose catalogs Google does have access to, the selection is very limited. This is also a natural growing pain that Apple and Amazon have gone through, but again Google is trying to compete with these already established services, and it needs to catch up quickly.
Not All Doom and Gloom
At this early stage of Google’s entry into the digital music arena, there is certainly no reason to sound the alarms, and there are no indications that Google is in panic mode. Furthermore, Google’s music offering has several major strengths, such as the ability for users to store much more music in the cloud for free compared to Amazon, and the clean, easy-to-use interface of its music player app. Another strength is Google’s vast marketing prowess and the widespread popularity of its other services, such as YouTube, which can be used to increase music sales from the Play Store. There are a number of simple suggestions I will make in my next article that, if followed, I am thoroughly convinced will make Google a competitive force in the digital music arena.