Six months after its subscription music service came to Android and the web, Google is bringing its take on unlimited streaming to the iPhone. Google Play Music arrives in the App Store this morning with most of the features that its Android counterpart does, done up in a style that feels native to iOS while remaining familiar to anyone who has used the service on another platform. And while much of what the app offers on iOS has been available on Spotify and Rdio for years, Google has invested enough in helping users discover new music to make their version worth a look.
The free version of Google Play Music allows you to listen to any of the songs you have backed up to Google's cloud — the company lets you store up to 20,000 tracks at no charge. For free users, the app's radio feature creates mixes of the songs in your collection using the same algorithms that power the paid version.
Google's catalog now includes more than 20 million songs
But to access the real power of Google Play Music, you'll need to pay $9.99 a month for its All Access plan. That gives you the ability to stream or download to your mobile device anything in Google's catalog, which now includes more than 20 million songs. You can create a custom ad-free radio station from any artist, song, or album, and skip as many songs as you like. Google will also recommend tracks based on your listening history, using its own algorithms.
The most distinctive part of Google Play Music lies in its Explore tab, which includes both algorithmic recommendations and playlists created by human editors. "At the end of the day, I think you need both," says Brandon Bilinski, product manager for Google Play Music. Bilinski says his team is designing the service to encourage users to explore unfamiliar categories of music, building starter playlists for 200 genres and subgenres.
The app also offers some unusual options for its radio feature, letting you add and delete upcoming songs from the radio queue. In that sense, radio on Google Play can work more like a playlist than a traditional radio station. "We build the playlist for you and let you make minor tweaks," Bilinski says. "But you don't have to do a ton of the work yourself."
Given its similarities to the Android version, why did the music app take so long to come to iOS? Speculation around the Android launch centered around Apple's App Store policies, which take a 30 percent cut of in-app sales. But Google says that the company didn't even try to negotiate with Apple over its commission — and as a result, you can't buy music through the app as you can on Android, nor can you subscribe to All Access through your smartphone.
"It just took us a little longer than we thought."
The actual reason for the delay: "It just took us a little longer than we thought to bring it up to the level of polish expected from Play Music and iOS apps," Bilinski says. That meant fixing problems with streaming and integrating the app with Chromecast, among other things. The result is an app that can stream music at up to 320 kbps, and can connect to speakers and other devices over AirPlay and Bluetooth. It's also available in 20 countries at launch.
That's not to say the iOS version is at parity with its Android counterpart. For starters, it does not include the "I'm Feeling Lucky" radio station, which builds an instant playlist based on your preferences. And the requirement to buy songs and subscriptions on the web instead of in the app feels anachronistic given the focus that Google and every other major tech company has placed on mobile devices. More than other streaming services, Google Play emphasizes buying tracks, with a prominent "shop" tab on Android and the web. That shopping is absent from the iOS app has to sting Google, at least a little.
But the music team is working to bring "I'm Feeling Lucky" and a handful of other missing features to the iOS version soon, Bilinski says. They're also working on a version optimized for the iPad. And in time, they hope to make their recommendations better aware of your context — suggesting fast-paced music during a morning workout, say, or a more mellow record at night. If they're successful, they'll help to differentiate an app that mostly replicates services that predated it. But for those who have entrusted their music libraries to Google already, or who are interested in a more editorial take on discovering new songs, Google Play Music for iOS will be a welcome arrival.