How Google's music-streaming venture will change the gadget and entertainment worlds forever.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
May 21 2010 5:07 PM

The Digital Download Is Dead

How Google's music-streaming venture will change the gadget and entertainment worlds forever.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

While the iPod has come to symbolize the digital music age, it's iTunes that's allowed Apple to control the musical marketplace. iTunes has a nice interface, it's easy to learn, and it's ubiquitous—it ships with every Mac, and it's one of the most downloaded Windows programs around. Other companies may make great phones and music players, but they don't have the desktop software to sync your music, apps, and photos. That's why Palm worked up a hack last year to connect its phones to iTunes—and why Apple quickly shut down the workaround.

Yet despite its omnipresence, iTunes hasn't aged well. Unlike most Apple products, it's gotten slower and more unwieldy over the years. The Windows version is the most annoying program I use on a regular basis. (I don't find the Mac version much more pleasant.) For one thing, it requires constant upgrades. These days the best desktop apps refresh themselves automatically; Chrome, Google's fantastic Web browser, remakes itself without any user input—you start it up and suddenly there are new features delivered from afar. iTunes takes the opposite tack: It wants to be upgraded about twice a month, and it demands constant attention during the process. You've got to approve the 80-plus-megabyte download, you've got to click several times as it installs, you've got to agree to a new license, and you might be asked to reboot your computer. And for what? Most upgrades result in no discernible improvement.

Google's Nexus One smartphone. Click image to expand.
Google's Nexus One smartphone
Advertisement

The worst part is syncing my music and photos with my iPhone and iPad. I usually try to do this when I'm leaving the house—in other words, when I'm in a hurry. iTunes doesn't care. It takes 30 seconds or so to identify my device, then several minutes to sync, and it's not unusual for the program to run into some kind of problem along the way, requiring me to start over. All this hassle seemed tolerable back in the days before Wi-Fi, but now it's anachronistic. It's 2010—why do I have to plug anything into anything to get files from my computer onto my phone?

Or, as Google exec Vic Gundotra put it this week, "Guess what? We discovered something really cool. It's called the Internet!" Gundotra was speaking at Google's annual developer conference, where the company showed off a raft of improvements to Android, its mobile OS. (It also unveiled Google TV.) Android phones already do lots of stuff wirelessly; because the OS is tied to your Google account, most of your data flies over the Internet, and you don't even need to plug the phone into your computer to upgrade its operating system (which you have to do with an iPhone).

Soon Android will be completely untethered. An upcoming version will let you buy apps and music from any computer—the files will then appear instantly on your phone. The best part, though, is that Android will let you play all the music on your computer without syncing your hard drive to your phone. As Gundotra explained, you'll do this by installing a small app on your desktop that will send your music—whether it's in iTunes, Windows Media Player, or anywhere else—to the Internet. (This only works with non-copy-protected music, which means pretty much everything except audiobooks.) Once the files are online, your phone will have access to your entire music library whenever you've got an Internet connection. In Gundotra's demo, the system worked very well: Even though the music doesn't live on your phone, it behaves exactly as if it does—it even includes album art. You press play and the song starts in seconds.

Gundotra didn't say when this feature will become available, but for Google's sake, I hope it's very soon. That's because Apple also seems bent on building what's been called "iTunes for the cloud." Last year it acquired the music-streaming service Lala, seemingly a prelude to Apple launching some manner of Web-based iTunes. I'm guessing that will happen this summer, when the company releases a new iPhone.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Global Marches Demand Action on Climate Change

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.