Google Music Beta Finally Live: 20,000 Songs In The Cloud

Google’s getting back to its roots with the launch of its long-rumored music service: it even put the word “beta” in the name of the product. Music Beta By Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is little more than an external hard drive in the cloud, perhaps far removed from what Google once hoped to provide and it could be a long time before it attains critical mass with an invite-only launch.

Executives unveiled the service Tuesday morning at Google I/O amid a host of other Android-related announcements. The 5,500 or so attendees at the conference in San Francisco will be the first to test out the service, which will let users upload 20,000 songs to the service and access them through a browser or Android device: iPhones need not apply. There’s no way at the moment to download those songs to reside permanently on devices, but there will be some limited amount of caching on the device so recently played songs will stick around when offline.

Google had hoped to launch a broader service, perhaps allowing users to purchase songs through Google, but couldn’t get enough major carriers on the same page as the search giant to go forward with anything beyond Music Beta, executives said in a press conference after the keynote address. Google said that smaller labels and independent labels were potentially interested, perhaps setting up a future release that allows music purchases from only certain companies.

“We felt that both from a product and business standpoint, we were not on a path to launch something that we thought would appeal to consumers,” said Jamie Rosenberg, director of digital content at Google.

So what has arrived is essentially the same service that Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is providing, rather than some sort of iTunes-competitor that many music fans and businesses had hoped for. Google emphasized several times that it believes Music Beta is legal (it’s U.S. only for now), but with Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) expected to finally launch a cloud version of iTunes sometime later this year with support from carriers, it’s hard to see exactly how a limited service could compete with an Apple service that would allow both storage and new purchases.

Often derided for keeping products in beta long past their maturity, Google is taking very cautious steps with this service. Some choice disclaimer language–that the service is available for free “for now”–indicates that Google likely still wants to incorporate some sort of purchase model down the road.