Google Play could be competition for Apple

Recently Google replaced its old Android Market with the shiny new Google Play. Whereas the old Android Market was centered (obviously) on Android phones, Google Play sits dead-center on the Google toolbar used by PCs and smartphones alike.

The service offers music, movies, books and games in one online marketplace. While obviously somewhat aping iTunes, Google Play differs in one major way from Apple’s mega-lucrative media service: Google Play stores all your media in the cloud, i.e., on the internet, so you never have to download that song or game or book or whatever you want to have. You can simply stream your whatever of choice from the web, without ever properly downloading it to your computer.

Google Play is not the first cloud-based entertainment service. Netflix and Hulu have transformed the entertainment industry with their online subscription-based video-streaming services. With iTunes Cloud, Apple let users sync media across all their newfangled gizmos. Netflix and Hulu, however, have limited themselves to movies and TV shows, and iTunes Cloud does not actually store media in the cloud. Google Play marks the first major attempt at omni-entertainment streamed strictly from the cloud.

iTunes will not be quivering in its boots quite yet. While Google Play talks big (offering “millions of songs and books” and “thousands of movies”), its selection compared to Apple’s is pretty weak, and users who want e-books or movies will more likely turn to a service built specifically for that medium. And competitors can take comfort too in the fact that Google’s ambitious side projects often fizzle. (Who remembers Google Wave?)

But then Google has never been a company one sneezes at. If Google Play gets some traction now, it could become a formative milestone in modern entertainment, the final step away from physically having one’s music toward having a license to hear it.