Internet giant Google raised eyebrows yesterday by announcing it was doing away with the Android Market. In its place is Google Play, a new unified digital storefront that will not only offer access to Android apps, but also to Google’s e-book, movie, and music offerings. The idea behind Google Play is to bring together Google’s primary digital content offerings in a single place, then make that online storefront accessible not just from Android devices, but to everyday Web browsers as well. Google customers will be able to treat Google Play a bit like a locker for their digital purchases. For instance, music they buy from Google Play will be available on any device that signs in to their Google account. Simple, yes?
For users, Google is positioning Google Play as a way to eliminate those nasty wires. Instead of having to deal with syncing digital content between devices (say, storing stuff on your PC, then syncing it to your Android phone or tablet), users won’t need to worry: Just connect to Google Play, and all your stuff is there whenever you want it, thanks to Google’s cloud platform. And Google is integrating Google Play with Google+ so users can quickly share what they love (or hate) with a few thousand of their closest friends. Not on Google+? Google Play lets folks share via old-school text message and email too.
As Google Play rolls out, the immediate impact on users will be relatively transparent. Folks who had already purchased Android apps, ebooks, or music through Google services will find all those purchases have been preserved in Google Play. Android devices will see the names of services change: “Books” will become “Play Books,” “Google Music” will become “Play Music,” “Movies” will become “Play Movies,” and (perhaps most awkwardly) Android Market will become “Play Store.” Individual features of those services will remain largely unchanged, for now.
Play Music — which is only available in the United States — will still enable users to upload up to 20,000 of their own songs to Google’s cloud-based storage, so they can be played back from any device that can log into the user’s Google account. (Users’s music purchases also come with the same freedom — and don’t count against the upload limit.) When users buy music, they also buy the ability to give their Google+ friends a free listen. Users can stream their Play Music collection anytime from the Web or via the Play Music app for Android.
Play Movies enables users to rent films, including a selection of new releases and back-catalog titles; rental rates range from $0.99 to $9.99 (at least in the U.S. store), and users can either watch films immediately, or download them for later viewing on Android devices using the Google Play Movies app. Play Movies may be where Google Play’s no-syncing and wire-free promise most frequently breaks down. Users can download a movie for later viewing on an Android device, but if it turns out they want to play it on a computer, the only option is to stream it from the Web. Play Movies also does not (yet) support Web-connected TVs — even ones with Google TV support. Play Movies is available in Canada, Japan, the UK, and the United States.
Play Books is Google’s bookstore. Google likes to tout its ebook store as the largest on the planet with over four million titles, and key to Play Books will be discoverability — finding ways to turn readers on to new content and titles, and (of course) getting them to buy. As with Google’s eBookstore, users can buy and read books using either a Web browser or a Books app on an supported device (Apple’s iOS is in the mix there, not just Android), and the readers enable users to quickly share favorites with Google+ friends as well as with email and text. Play Books keeps all the book content in the cloud — although local copies can be stashed for offline reading on devices — so, in theory, users never have to worry about syncing their content or bookmarks.
Play Store represents the biggest paradigm shift for Google Play. Android apps are now just another form of digital content that Google sells alongside books, music, and media, rather than software that can augment and expand the capabilities of an Android device. For some categories of apps, this is a distinction without a difference. Few would argue that many Android games are out of place in something called a “Play Store” — and, indeed, the Play Store puts games front and center. Similarly, apps that provide access to digital content — like apps for Kindle books or Netflix — aren’t an exact fit, but they aren’t truly out of place. Heck, one could argue that social media apps for services like Facebook and Twitter and even shopping apps aren’t outside the realm of “playing.”
However, there can be a substantial disconnect with other application categories. Are users who want to add a third-party keyboard or calendar to their Android device “playing?” How about folks adding malware protection, VoIP apps like Skype, or GPS navigation and mapping? What about folks who use their Android devices to connect to databases, manage financial transactions, track their exercise regimens or diets, or figure out their commutes? Not everything folks do with Android devices falls under the category of “play” — sometimes, it’s serious.
What if you’re not on Android? Google enables users to tap into its e-book and music offerings from iOS devices, and anything with a “modern” Web browser should be able to use Web-based versions of the services. But Google hasn’t said whether it plans to make other dedicated apps for Google Play services for non-Android platforms, including iOS but also BlackBerry or Windows Phone 7.
The whole point of Google Play is for Google to bring together its top digital content marketplaces in one place, and hopefully present a cleaner, more streamlined and smarter experience for users. In this sense, Google Play is a direct competitor with Apple’s iTunes, which also offers a mix of apps, music, video (television and movies), and books. Google is also going after portions of Apple’s iCloud service by enabling users to have access to all their purchased content at any time from any compatible, authorized device. Google hasn’t yet pulled in all the components Apple offers in iCloud — Google would have to integrate Google Docs, Picasa photo sharing (or something like it), Google Talk, backup services, and so on. But Google has almost all those pieces. Don’t be surprised if Google Play starts leaning toward iCloud.
Google Play also competes with Amazon’s ecosystem: Amazon also offers apps, movies, music, and is of course the top seller of e-books with its Kindle platform. However, where Google is going to have a relatively easy time slipping Google Play onto many Android devices, that won’t be true on Amazon’s Android-based Kindle Fire, where Android is buried so far beneath Amazon’s own custom interface that users really have to work to realize there is a broader Android ecosystem. So, in a sense, Google Play isn’t an effort to try to get Amazon Kindle Fire owners to defect out of Amazon’s world of digital content. It’s intended to give consumers an alternative to Amazon’s (and Apple’s) content ecosystems — because once consumers are locked into a digital content provider, it can be very difficult and expensive for them to switch.
Google Play? Play Store? Really?
The biggest hurdle Google may face with Google Play is the name. Google debuted Android Market in March 2009, and essentially spent three years promoting it as the heart and soul of the Android universe. “Android Market” might have been a dull name, but it had the advantages of being well known and neutral. It covered, well, anything for Android.
“Play” does not. How does one “play” books? Do Android developers really want to tell customers to “go to the Google Play Store” to get an app? The term “play” works well with music and video, but trivializes and even demeans the rest of Google’s content ecosystem. “Play Store” sounds too much like something young children might do with dolls. The whole message is that Google and Android are just playing: Don’t pay attention, don’t them seriously.
It’s not as if Google needed a great name, if it was determined to toss “Android Market” in a ditch. Amazon doesn’t have any sort of over-arching brand for its content offerings. Quick, what’s the difference between Amazon Instant Video and Prime Instant Videos? Even Apple’s highly successful iTunes service suffers from its naming choice. The iTunes name is left over from 2003 when Apple kick started its digital music business. As Apple started offering television and movies (2005) — then apps (2008), then books (2010) — the “iTunes” monicker fit more poorly with Apple’s digital content offerings. That’s why Apple says customers get apps from the App Store rather than the “iTunes App Store” — and why Apple likes “iBookstore” instead of “iTunes Books.”
At least with Google Play, Google isn’t making the mistake of branding its digital content offerings in a way that ties them to a particular media or device. It’s just a shame it couldn’t come up with something that could encompass the full range Google’s content offerings.