Google kicked off its annual Google I/O developers conference by giving people what they've been speculating about for months -- an online music service.
During a keynote presentation on the first day of the conference, Google took the wraps off Music Beta by Google, a service that will enable people to store their music in the cloud and then stream it to all kinds of devices -- tablets, smartphones or PCs.
The company noted that during the beta, the service will be free; the eventual price tag was not disclosed. All of the Google I/O attendees were invited to join the beta. Anyone interested can sign up on the music beta website and request an invitation.
"For Google, it's yet another service that can deliver eyeballs to Google pages and advertisers," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "It's not a music store yet, but can that be far behind? And if it does become a full-fledged music and media store, it has the potential to break Apple's hammerlock on content providers."
The music service should have good synergy with the rapidly growing Android platform, Olds added. "As Android devices multiply, it gives Google a bigger and bigger base to sell to," he said. "It also gives Android device [vendors] a powerful selling point versus iPhones and iPads."
Music Beta by Google will compete with Amazon's Cloud Player, a cloud-based service announced in late March. It also will vie with offerings like Apple's hugely popular iTunes and the music streaming service Rhapsody.
"It's a direct threat to Apple, mainly due to Google's reach and staying power," Olds said. "For other content players, like Amazon, which is in the early stages of the music business, Google's entry into the market has to give them pause."
Google's offering should look familiar to people who already use online music services.
At this point, Google doesn't have a repository of music that people can buy and download, but when users upload their own music, they can sort it into playlists based on artists, songs or genres. And when they add new music to their computers, the songs will automatically be added to their Google Music libraries. As another irritant to Apple, Google also is allowing users to upload their iTunes libraries and playlists.
And Google being Google, there's also a search engine to help people find the song they're looking for. Google also gives people the option of listening to music offline, and it included a feature called Instant Mix that will suggest songs that it thinks go well together.
Music wasn't the only entertainment genre that Google touched on Tuesday.
The company also announced that Android Market will now offer full-length movies starting at $1.99 apiece -- though popular films might cost more.
Google's music announcement -- and, to a lesser extent, its movie announcement -- may fuel speculation that the company is focused on building a social networking platform to compete against Facebook.
Industry analysts have long speculated that Google is developing a social network, and that music, gaming and movies could play a big role in it.
Google's music service isn't the social platform that the industry has been anticipating. However, it could be a building block for one.
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, said music could be a tough pillar on which to build a social network. Even Apple, despite having a strong base with its iTunes store, hasn't made huge waves with Ping, its music-based social network.
"A cloud-based music service is potentially very strong for Android, for advertising, for general stickiness," Gottheil said. "But it's more a shot at Apple than at FaceBook."
However, Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, disagreed, noting that music, gaming and movies could be part of a Google social network.
"Certainly, this could be social because you could share what you're listening to with all your friends," said Rob Enderle. "This certainly could be used as a first step to Google starting a social network."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.