Google may not be the first out of the gate with a cloud music service, but given the exposure Google has in the smartphone, it’s probably best positioned to have the biggest impact on mobile data network. According to some initial reviews, Google Music Beta lacks a lot of the features and glitz of Amazon’s cloud music platform—an actual music store, for instance—but all of the key components for a mobile-network taxing service are there (PCMag: Hands on with Google Music Beta). Google can load a user’s entire music library up into the ether, where you can stream it to any number of devices, including Android smartphones.
If operators are still looking for a good reason to move to usage-based mobile data plans, this is a good one. A streamed song consumes nowhere near the bandwidth of a decent-quality streamed video, but the potential for use of streamed music is far greater. Customers don’t actually have to be looking at their phones to enjoy audio. Bluetooth in vehicles has triggered a big increase in music streaming through the phone to car stereos as customers tap into Internet radio services like Pandora. Cisco Systems Visual Networking Index predicts that audio streaming will be a big driver of mobile data traffic growth, increasing at a rate of 107% a year (CP: Mobile data demand by the numbers)
These kinds of music redistribution services are still far from mainstream, but the fact that Google, Amazon and Microsoft are all launching cloud media services (Apple is rumored to be working on an iTunes-driven cloud service of its own) indicates that the cloud could be the next big thing in digital media. It also has the potential to finally fulfill the industry’s old prophecy that the phone could become a focal point of a consumer’s digital music collection. Lack of interest in carrier music stores, digital copyright issues and clunky side-loading models all impaired the phone from becoming a stand-in for the portable digital music player—pretty much with the sole exception of the iPhone (Unfiltered: Can Sprint—or any other operator—make a business out of mobile music). But a service that can seamlessly deliver a consumer’s entire music library on the PC or home media server over the air to handsets overcomes all those issues.
If everyone starts streaming their music from the cloud, the impact on operators 3G and future mobile broadband networks would be huge, but it’s definitely more manageable than video. A Netflix movie could drain a smartphone or broadband data plan’s monthly data allotment in a matter of hours. Music is a lot more bandwidth friendly and probably wouldn’t lead to the worst bill shock scenarios we’ve heard so much about. Google is also including some more network-friendly features to the service. Customers can â€˜pin’ songs to the phone, keeping them stored in memory so the network isn’t forced to stream the song every time it comes up in a playlist. Music Beta also automatically pins a customer’s most-played songs automatically, further sparing the network. So even if you won’t admit Journey is your favorite band, Google knows and will automatically save those tracks to your phone’s memory. Any customer on a 1 gig plan probably is in little danger of driving up $100 overages.
Operators definitely have an opportunity here to drive customers to higher tier plans if they sing the virtues of mobile music. But if they’re smart, they could also move further up the value chain beyond bit pipe access. Not everyone who wants to listen to digital music necessarily wants to be a premium data services provider, paying $25-$30 or more month just to access their music collection. An operator could start selling music data plans to smartphone and feature phone customers that meters normal data consumption, but gives unlimited access to cloud and Internet-based music services like Amazon’s, Google’s and Pandora’s—say $15 for 100 MB of data and free reign over mobile music.
There will probably be a preference among the mobile operators to partner with a specific cloud music provider for such a service, but that would be a mistake. But they really need to move beyond this idea of providing a music service to the concept of enabling other’s music services. The carrier music store didn’t work. The carrier music service powered by Google won’t work either.