Being old enough to remember life before the internet, I still occasionally stop and look in awe at the wonderful changes the world-wide-web has brought us. In the last decade particularly, computer processing power, network speeds and some fantastic user interface design has led to a perfect storm where the technology has converged and become a key part of nearly every person's life whether they consider themselves to be a techie, or more importantly, even if they don't.
For me, the best thing about the internet is the myriad different ways it allows me to communicate with people I know, and people I don't. I can keep up with my friends via social networks and a good old fashioned voice call cheaply and easily, no matter where in the world they happen to be. I can indulge my own interests through blogging and forums and enjoy discussions with people I may never meet in person but happen to share an interest or point of debate with. Yes, there are darker sides to the internet, but there is so much to be celebrated.
After communication, my next love of the internet is music, or rather the access to it. The record publishers may have take a while to 'get' the internet, but now we have all manner of fantastic ways to discover, rent and buy music anywhere, anytime. As a teenager, it would occasionally take weeks to find out what a new song was when I heard it, but now I can simply search on a lyric or use an app to 'listen' to the song and I know what it is within seconds. More recently, the problems were more around managing my mp3 collection across multiple devices, but the internet helped me there too.
For the last couple of years, all of my music habits have centered around Spotify. For £9.99 per month, I have access to 18 million songs and superb apps for my Android phone and iPad, not to mention the excellent Windows client, all running in perfect sync. I have 20 odd playlists, including a few that are shared with friends so we can separately add tracks for shared car journeys and so on. It's fantastic . . . but
...there is something my financially frugal side keeps worrying about. £120 per year to rent songs is quite a lot of money once you're largely listening to the same things over and over. I still love to explore, but after a few years, I have found that I return to familiar territory and a few new tracks discovered a month is probably not enough to justify the outlay compared to buying the music. After all, these days £9.99 can potentially buy a couple of albums which I can keep forever.
I wrote about this recently when Amazon launched their 'Cloud Player' a great looking alternative to Spotify. You get all the benefits of internet access to your collection (single point of management mainly), but YOU own the music. Anything you buy from Amazon automatically arrives in your player and you're also able to upload a few hundred of your own for free to get going. Unfortunately, the implementation of the service was pretty clunky compared to the super slick Spotify and I gave up on it.
Now it's Google's turn with their music store up on 'Google Play' called 'Google Listen'. Can Google succeed where Amazon failed and convince renters like me back to being buyers?
First impressions are good, particularly if you have an Android based device, the app is excellent. The website is a match for iTunes, Amazon or any other with 'departments' covering music, books, movies and android apps (for smartphones and tablets). It's easy to browse and all purchases are available to all your devices making it easy to keep things organised.
Focusing on the music section, Google immediately knocks Amazon out the ring with the ability to upload 20,000 of your own songs into the music player free of charge. This should be more than enough space for most people's entire mp3 collection. It's also a 'match' based system, so rather than uploading every single track, which could take hours on a typical home broadband connection, if the song is recognised, they'll simply use a copy from their own library. Songs not recognised will be copied. I've been uploading my albums a few at a time and generally speaking the process is pretty quick.
Once you have a decent amount of songs uploaded, the website becomes a music player and manager. On the left hand side, music can be listed by song, artist, album or genre. Album art is applied where recognised and playlists can be created and added to by simply dragging and dropping songs onto them much like traditional software like iTunes or Windows Media Player. Some auto-playlists are available too like 'Last added' and 'Google Recommends'.
Of course the latter playlist is there because Google want you to buy stuff. The advertising is fortunately completely unintrusive. As you listen to an album for example, Google will list other bands you might like at the bottom of the screen, clicking on those will take you to the store where you can buy them. Purchases are automatically added to Google Listen and the library of songs to buy looks to be competitive with everyone else.
So is Google Listen good enough to tempt me away from Spotify? Well, I think I may have found my ideal solution in using both.
Spotify have a £5 per month option which means you sacrifice the access to the apps on mobile devices like tablets and smartphones and also the sound quality falls back from a 320kbs stream to 160kbs. However you do get full access via your computer and there are no adverts or time limits.
With that £5 saved, I can then start to buy songs as I discover them in Spotify and Google Listen will be my master copy with the free mobile apps allowing me access from my phone, tablet and PC in the way I'm used to.
The free Android app is excellent. There is a simple widget for your home-screen to allow play/pause and skip without having to open the full app and the full app gives you access to everything you need. Amazon's smartphone app wasn't bad either, but it was badly let down by not keeping cached (downloaded for offline playback) playlists up to date. In Google Listen I was able to create a playlist for my phone which I set to be available offline to save on data bills and add songs to it from the website. Each time, within moments, the phone copy of the playlist had updated and the new tracks were downloaded and ready to go. Streaming and downloads can be set to only happen over WIFI if you're not on an unlimited data phone tariff.
So were there any problems? Well, there is one disappointment, there isn't a nice slick iPad app (and I think iPhone owners are to be disappointed also) and the Spotify iPad app is AMAZING! It really makes browsing for songs a pleasure. Hopefully Google will release one in time, but for now there are third party apps on IOS to save the day. I've gone with 'GoMusic' for iPad, which connects directly with Google Listen (no third party server connections involved) and it presents a very nice media player interface with all the functionality of the service available for the tiny sum of 69p. Sorted.
The internet brings instant access to all the world's music. Spotify for £5 per month will let you explore much of it from your computer and Google Music will host your collection and allow you to buy music in a convenient manner anywhere, anytime, automatically keeping it in sync across all your music playback devices. In fact you don't even need to buy from Google. Install their music manager application (available for Windows, Mac and Linux (tested)) and point it at your collection and it will automatically upload any new music as it appears, meaning you can continue to buy from any shop you like, but keep Google Listen as the master location. Best of all worlds for a tenner a month. God bless the internet and thank you Google!