Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Google Music deserves Beta label

While one cannot complain too much given Google Music Beta is 'free', there are a few teething troubles and annoyances with Google's new offering.

Google Music is by invite only, and to the lucky few, which may run into millions, the service is a cloud based music archive, a facility to store 'all' you music and stream it back to you. Actually it may not be all your music for two reasons. Firstly, Google only offer enough space for some 20,000 files, so those with larger collections will have a few issues as to what to leave out. The next pitfall affecting quite a number of users is the files it will accept. Most have mp3 file which is not an issue, it also accepts AAC, Windows Media Audio (WMA) and the lossless FLAC format. But it does not allow users to upload WAV files or those containing DRM, or Digital Right Management. Few people use WAV these days, though there are a number of such items in my collection. DRM maybe an issue for some however. If users have built up a legitimately purchased collection of files with DRM attached, they are out of the game. This is perhaps not Google's fault, as it wants to run a legal storage service and accepting such files might breach laws in certain states and countries.

Issues pertaining to copyright infringement has been the main stumbling block for Google in releasing its new service. No major record label has been willing to partner with it so clicking on the menu to search for songs by an artist open a browser to Google's shopping page rather than a custom application. In the US, a fair use policy exists whereby legitimately bought music may be stored by the owner on a number of devices such as MP3 players or even burned to CD for personal use. But in some regions such as Britain there exists a grey area in law. As such Google have made Google Music available only to those within the United States. And of course music stored in Google Music cannot be shared.

Being offered to those in the US hasn't stopped people elsewhere from getting access to Google Music. Some, while on a trip to the US, have applied for an invitation, while others have used a US based VPN or proxy.

After receiving an invite users must first sign an agreement and download Music Manager. It is not that heavy, though some may find that until all their songs are uploaded their Internet may be a little sluggish. Dependent on the kind of connection available it might take days or weeks to complete the upload of 20,000 songs.

But the slow uploading is not the only issue. Some songs fail to upload altogether and only an error message is logged in the Music Manager with no obvious way to resolve the problem such as to try again. Another problem many people have encountered is skipped files due to the fact Google says there is "no music in file". Again there is no further explanation nor directions to resolve.

I have only a dozen or so skipped tracks comprising a few DRM files, some it claims have 'no music in file' and two that failed to upload. Others have been less lucky.

ZDNet's Ed Bott found that after 19 hours of operation, only 1,654 tracks had been uploaded. "At that pace, it would take nearly two weeks of round-the-clock uploading to get my entire collection into Google's cloud servers," Bott exclaimed. But he was even more exasperated at the staggering number of errors he saw for this collection. "Why were 21,300 tracks skipped?"

Again no apparent explanation. A trawl of the Internet brought up some solutions with some users suggesting that changing the ID3 tags in the mp3 files may solve the 'no music in file' issue. One user writing on a Google help forum said the program Media Monkey helped him get round the problem, though his instructions were not that clear.

Sifting through the few files Google claims had no music content, some did indeed consist of only a few bytes and had probably failed to rip or download properly. But there were others which were most definitely intact, leaving one somewhat bewildered.

Having a rather slow connection at my current location the uploading is rather painful. After nearly three days it had only managed some 1,500 songs from a collection of 6,000, but it should be worth it given all the hype.

What Google promises is the ability to listen to your music anywhere you have an Internet connection. Even with a 1 or 2 Mb broadband it does manage to stream well. Over WiFi on the Android App it also work excellently. One can make playlists which also sync between devices. However there is no obvious way to retrieve your music from the cloud. So for now at least it would be unwise to throw away your hard copies.

As a Beta release, there were bound to be some issues. The few missing songs is perhaps not the end of the world, but a slight irritation nonetheless.

Google Music Beta will surely get better over time, and with competition from Apple's iTunes and offerings from Microsoft and Amazon it has its work cut out. But it's a good start overall [CNET / Mashable].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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