Streaming music breakdown: how Google Music and iCloud will impact today's options

Gone are the days of going to the music store, finding a vintage CD or cassette tape, happily unwrapping it and thoroughly perusing the cover art as you listen to your new album for the very first time. In a want-it-now world, that simply takes too long -- and we have the internet to thank for the change in pace. As preferences seem to shift in the music consumption universe, it feels as if tastes are centered around consuming the largest amount of music possible. And thanks to the sudden proliferation of online streaming services, satisfying those desires in record time has become a reality.

Unsurprisingly, competition is mighty fierce -- consumers have options for user-made radio stations, on-demand streaming content, and cloud-based multimedia. But if you've been hearing the word on the street, Apple and Google could soon make their way onto the scene by offering streaming music options of their own. Almost everything these two tech giants touch turns to gold (emphasis on almost -- we don't think Ping and Buzz built the best reputations), so there's reason to believe that these oft-rumored services will become automatic front-runners the day they're released. Head on past the break to see some of the lucky / unlucky contestants planning to give Google and Apple a run for their (near-limitless) money, replete with a breakdown of what they offer and how hard they hit the wallet.








$4.99/month ($3.99 annual pass)


$9.99/month (1 device); $14.99 for 3


40 free hours/month

Freemium model

14 days free

14 days free

Type of Streaming:

Radio stations

Radio stations

On-demand, radio stations


What you pay for:

Ad-free, higher bit rate, desktop app

Ad-free, unlimited song skips, lyrics, offline caching

Unlimited song streaming, downloads for offline listening

Unlimited song streaming, downloads

Mobile reach:

iOS, Android, BlackBerry, WebOS

iOS, Android, BlackBerry, WebOS, WP7

iOS, Android

iOS, Android, BlackBerry, WP7

Unique features:

Thumbs up/down

See which artist is up next in the queue

Personalized radio based off existing queue

Option to stream on 3 mobile devices




Amazon Cloud Player

Zune Pass


$4.99/month on desktop web; $9.99 on mobile

$5/month web-only; $10 mobile and web

Between $20/year for 20 GB and $1,000/year for 1 TB



7 days

7 days

5 GB free storage

14 days

Type of streaming:





What you pay for:

Unlimited song access, sync mobile to desktop

Unlimited song access

Additional storage capacity

Unlimited access, 10 free downloads per month

Mobile reach:

iOS, Android, BlackBerry

iOS, Android, BlackBerry

Android only

WP7, Zune Marketplace

Unique Features:

Can be used on Sonos and Roku

Military discount of 30% off subscription services

Access to Amazon's MP3 store

Option to keep 10 downloads per month

This list represents the most popular streaming music services available, and obviously it's just the tip of the iceberg. Here are a couple we considered putting on the list and earned honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

Spotify: Any American who has heard of Spotify knows all too well the mystery surrounding the service on this side of the Atlantic. The company has made clear that it's working hard toward a US launch, but for now only European users are able to enjoy the spoils. Premium members get unlimited song support ad-free, full offline playlists, high-quality audio at a bitrate of 320kbps, and new albums before they're released. Sounds lovely for £4.99 / €4.99 per month (for browser-only; mobile support costs £9.99), but everyone on the west side of the pond will have to continue patiently waiting for the service to come knockin' at the front door.

AudioGalaxy: Those of you who used Simplify Media (and are still on the prowl for a free alternative on your iPhone or Android), you have a new friend waiting at Load all of the music on your computer onto a desktop client, download a smartphone app (iOS and Android for now) and the program will play any song from your library, from anywhere. The only downer is that your computer has to be powered on -- and the broadband needs to be coursing through it -- in order to talk to your mobile device, but the outfit's impressive limit of 200,000 songs might just be enough to consider using the free service.

So many choices

Much like snowflakes and unicorns, no two music streaming services are exactly alike. Judging by the options we detailed earlier, each program has a specific style and niche to fill. Pandora and Slacker are playlist-based radio stations generated by your specific tastes, and give you the chance to vote on your favorite songs; Mog and Napster are examples of on-demand services, letting you eat from a buffet of thousands of artists and albums any time you want; and Amazon and Audiogalaxy are cloud-based services that let you upload your computer's music library and play it on your mobile 24 / 7. If you're that guy / gal who'd rather be surprised at what's on deck (or just want to listen to the freshest jams for free), choose Pandora or Slacker. If you know exactly what you want and like choice, choose an on-demand or cloud-based subscription. Any of the listed services would be acceptable to use, but much like the prevention of forest fires, only you can determine which model suits your needs the most.

All that's well and good, but the nascent music streaming arena could be in for a serious shakeup as early as next week. Should Apple and Google move forward with their rumored cloud services, it'll be frighteningly easy for them to completely outshine the to-be little guys populating the market today. Their phones and tablets have infiltrated millions upon millions of homes, and they have almost limitless piles of money to throw in to grab exclusive rights to artists and albums (Beatles, anyone?). Beyond that, there's the invaluable mindshare aspect -- a great many consumers are already entrenched in an Apple or Google-powered ecosystem, and staying in said ditches is far easier than climbing out and finding a new one to call home. Is it really that hard to imagine a world where Google and Apple's cloud music services instantly begin to dominate the existing players jockeying for position today? Will all of said players still be in the running a dozen months from now?

None of them will go down without a fight. Take Pandora, for instance: barely staying afloat for years, it renegotiated royalty fees with SoundExchange and expanded its service out to mobile, TV widgets, Roku Players, even cars. Pandora thought outside the box and got more creative in expanding its business, and two outcomes came as a result: consumers benefited from having more ways to enjoy the service, and Pandora thrived.

Google Music and iCloud: Beginnings

To know how to compete and survive the upcoming doomsday, our minor players in this story must accurately predict the direction both Google and Apple plan to take in their approach. Will they only use cloud-based services or encompass multiple genres? Shocking though it may be, the history books are a good place to look for a little foreshadowing.

Last year's I/O conference brought thrills as Google put out a demo showing off WiFi iTunes syncing and the ability to purchase and transfer music from the Android Market to your phone. It also announced the company's purchase of Simplify Media, which gave iOS users the opportunity to stream their iTunes library directly into their phones -- as long as the computer was turned on. These were rather clear indications toward some type of music integration service down the road, but all of the hubub was followed by eleven months of radio silence (besides the occasional leak). That all changed three weeks ago, when Google officialized a rumored $25m acquisition of PushLife, a service that offered push syncing with iTunes or Windows Media Player as well its own integrated music store. Sensing a pattern yet?

These moves show Google shifting in the same direction as Amazon, which already offers a music store and online storage that's accessible from any Android device. It appears that the Music service will be some sort of hybrid cloud-based locker / digital download store that will focus on purchasing songs or albums from the Android Market, offering online storage space, and automatic syncing between desktop and mobile by way of WiFi. Earlier leaks show this service both streaming your library and downloading songs direct to the device, all courtesy of your local WiFi network. We're keeping our fingers crossed for a more detailed demonstration and announcement at this year's I/O -- we'll be on the scene bringing you the blow by blow, of course.

As for Apple's intentions, the company set its sights on "iCloud," not a surprise in the slightest considering the company's usual naming structure. Apple also built a massive data center in North Carolina and purchased popular streaming music service Lala last year. To intensify things further, the news that Warner Music and at least one other major label have signed on to the iCloud idea has been whispered to us, and we're cautiously optimistic that we'll hear much more at WWDC. The iCloud will likely offer its own online locker service combined with wireless iTunes syncing, cloud-based storage of preferences and possibly even files, and we're hearing that Apple will be allowed to keep the master track of a song on its servers and then share that track with multiple users -- this means that when you purchase a song through iTunes, you'll be able to listen to it on multiple devices. Apple's agreement with record labels leads us to believe that quite a bit of exclusive content will be made available, but given that said scenario is already playing itself out within iTunes, we'll just have to feign surprise.

The Future of Music Streaming

Our take on what'll happen to the landscape here? Google will dominate the Android music scene. Apple will be master of its own domain with iTunes. Microsoft will be king of its Zune Marketplace castle (and perhaps the cloud-centric Windows 8 castle), and Pandora will continue to be the jack of all trades that has brilliantly snuck its way into every conceivable consumer electronic device. Where does that leave everyone else, besides trying to pick up the scraps? Sure, there's a long and winding road up ahead for most of the smaller companies, but it's nothing a little tweaking and exercising of the creative juices can't get past. With Google, Apple, and Amazon all competing for cloud storage victory, there's still plenty of room in the market for the other styles. And thank goodness for that -- the last thing we want to see emerge out of this is a duopoly.

It won't be easy. Most streaming music services are posting losses, but we're holding out hope. Will Google and Apple run clean over the competition? In the cloud, perhaps, but it's vital to remember that not every consumer has a huge music collection that they need to access from everywhere. There's still a niche to be explored in the on-demand space, and there should always (thankfully) be a few options out there for those who simply don't need or trust the cloud to handle their musical appetites.