Forget the Football World Cup; summer 2010 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting periods in digital music’s short history. Spotify is preparing to launch in the US (still), Nokia is rolling out multiple new Comes With Music territories, MOG is finding its feet as a premium subscription service and a number of exciting new services are primed for launch. But just as with the World Cup we’ve already got a decent idea of who the finalists are likely to be: Apple and Google. Continuing the World Cup analogy a little, Apple is Argentina, the once great force that have lost their way a little but have arguably the best array of talent and look like they may just be about to have the engine purring like a tiger again. Whereas Google takes the role of Holland: a slick, skillful team who take all before them with their total football but have never won the World Cup. (Football aficionados will have noticed I left out Spain – the 3rd and possibly strongest favourite – but they didn’t quite fit my framework!)
Closed versus open is actually closed versus…er…closed. Google is playing the role of disruptive new entrant and mischievously played upon Apple’s original 1984 marketing, positioning Apple as being the Big Brother now. Google has also played strongly on being open versus Apple’s closed approach. But the bottom line is that Google’s music strategy looks likely to be pretty closed too. The fact that the Android Music Store is designed to work with Android devices means it will be similarly exclusive as the iTunes / iPhone / iPod / iPad ecosystems. The difference is Google is betting on a wide range of partners having a large installed base of customers on its platform so it will ‘feel’ open.
The outlook is cloudy. Of course the music download store has never been the end game of any company with even an ounce of strategic nous. The margins are so small that the a la carte download store only has any value as a means to an end. Apple uses it to enhance their device proposition and Google look set to follow suit for similar reasons. But expect Google to integrate the store in a broader cloud based offering, just as Apple is likely to do, possibly as early as June 7th (at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference). Both Google and Apple have bought their way into cloud expertise (via Simplify Media and Lala respectively) and both understand that music consumption and access trump music purchasing many times over. So if you’re going to have a compelling music device experience, you need to play to the access and consumption cards.
Device agnosticity but not platform agnosticity. Apple, Google, Nokia and others recognize the crucial importance of consumers being able to take their music experience with them across multiple devices. Apple and Google look primed to take this to another level. But the great irony is that with the very act of giving consumers more choice of devices they limit their choice of platform by locking them further into their ecosystems. Of course both Apple and Google may well decide to have an open access web component to their offerings that is not explicitly tied to a device. But make no mistake, these will be acquisition tools for their device and platform plays. Curtailed platform liberty will be the price music consumers will have to pay for increased device freedom.