Battle of the media ecosystems: Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft

Four large tech ecosystems are currently vying for our attention -- and for our dollars. How well are they succeeding?

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Music

After Apple almost single-handedly created the digital music market with iTunes, the world of selling digital music was stable for years: There was iTunes -- and then there was everyone else.

But times have changed and the digital music world is in flux. iTunes was built on selling digital downloads, which in a sense copied the physical world of retailing. You paid money to buy something and then it was yours, with certain limitations due to DRM.

Today, though, music services led by Pandora and Spotify have shown that streaming, not digital ownership, is likely the future of music, and each big ecosystem has taken a different tack in this arena. Read on to see how they compare.

Amazon
Amazon logo

Amazon may not be the sales behemoth in music that it is in books, but it's still got a sizable, solid business, both in CDs and digital, downloadable music. The CD business is about as straightforward as you can get -- buy CDs on Amazon and have them shipped to you. For buying digital music, Amazon takes an approach that almost seems quaintly old-fashioned in the fast-moving digital music marketplace: Buy individual MP3s from Amazon and play them on a device. The selection is sizable (currently more than 22 million songs), and Amazon has a Web-based MP3 store as well as an Android store.

As for iOS devices, there's no iOS Amazon MP3 app. You have to buy digital music on an iOS-optimized version of the Amazon website. And when you buy the music, it won't show up in iTunes.

Amazon's digital music sales have been gaining serious market share, likely driven by music sales on its Kindle Fire tablet, says the NPD Group. It reports that in the fourth quarter of 2012, Amazon had 22% of the market for music downloads, compared to 15% in 2011, 13% in 2010, 10% in 2009 and 7% in 2008.

iTunes, though, was still dominant in the fourth quarter of 2012, NPD reports, with 63% market share, although declining slightly from previous years, with 68% market share in 2011 and 69% in 2009.

The most innovative part of Amazon's music ecosystem is the Amazon Cloud Player, which lets you stream your music from the cloud to any computer or Android or iOS device. Any MP3 you buy from Amazon gets put into the cloud. And you can add digital music to it that you didn't buy from Amazon, such as music that you've ripped to a digital format yourself. It's not a subscription service like Spotify that streams music that you haven't bought, so you only get access to what you've purchased or to what you've copied.

That's it for now. Amazon appears to have its sights on launching a Spotify-like subscription music service. Reports say that it is in talks with music companies to start one. If that ever happens, Amazon's music ecosystem could become a juggernaut.

Apple
Apple logo

The big question for Apple these days when it comes to music is whether it can replicate the success of its digital music behemoth iTunes with its just-announced streaming Internet radio service, iTunes Radio.

There's no doubt that iTunes has been a raging success: As of April 28, 2013 -- at the tenth anniversary mark -- the iTunes Store has sold over 25 billion music tracks and is available in 119 countries, each with a selection of at least 20 million songs (the U.S. iTunes store alone carries over 35 million). According to NPD, the iTunes store accounts for about 30% of all music sold worldwide and 63% of all digital music sales.

There have been some tweaks since iTunes first started selling music. iTunes Plus music files are now free of DRM restrictions and are encoded as 256Kb/s AAC files. (Note: They still contain purchaser information.)

iTunes
The big question for Apple these days when it comes to music is whether it can replicate the success of its digital music behemoth iTunes.

Music lovers with iOS devices are not limited to the iTunes Store; Apple's App Store includes the streaming services Spotify and Pandora, and the music-matching services Shazam and SoundHound. There's even a karaoke game for Glee fans, called, appropriately enough, Glee Karaoke.

If you own an Apple TV or any AirPlay-capable receiver, music can be beamed from any iOS device, Mac or Windows computer with iTunes to your living room setup with the tap of the virtual AirPlay button.

Meanwhile, iTunes Match is Apple's $25/year service that provides cloud access for up to 25,000 of your songs on your iOS/OS X/Windows devices via music populated in the iTunes Store. If you live in an area with a good cellular signal and have an iOS device with limited storage, iTunes Match is a good buy.

The just-announced iTunes Radio will have more than 200 streaming radio stations and, as with Pandora, you'll be able to build your own radio stations based on your musical preferences. It will be free and ad-supported, although anyone who subscribes to the iTunes Match service ($24.99/year) will get it ad-free. It will integrate with iTunes, so that you can buy any track in iTunes that you're listening to in iiTunes Radio.

The question is: Will that be enough to fend off the competition, notably Pandora and Spotify? We won't know until its availability in the fall. But just having Apple's backing makes it an instant contender.

Google
Google logo

In addition to offering albums and individual tracks for purchase, the Google Play Music interface allows you to upload your existing music collection and then stream it from Google's servers to any PC or mobile device. Any music connected to your account can also be "pinned" to a device for offline consumption.

As of May, Google also offers an on-demand streaming service called Google Play Music All Access; it provides unlimited streaming from Google's music library for $9.99/month. Songs from the service can be played on any device, be it a computer, smartphone or tablet. The All Access service includes an option for custom song- or artist-based "radio stations" in the style of Pandora, with no limit on the number of songs you want to skip.

At this point, Google Play's library of content is generally quite good. The store used to be rather limited in its music and movie offerings, but deals inked with Warner Music Group, 20th Century Fox and Time last fall rounded out the once-lacking selection.

Microsoft
MS logo

When you think of Microsoft, music doesn't come to mind. Its Zune digital music player was a well-publicized flop, and it doesn't have a cloud-based music player like the Amazon Cloud Player or Google Play Music. Still, with its Xbox Music service for Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox 360, Microsoft has made an attempt to knit together a serious music ecosystem, and it's a good one. (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 users can only access the older Zune software music service.)

The Xbox Music app is built into Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 and, of course, into the Xbox 360. But despite the app's name, you don't need an Xbox 360 to use it. It's yet one more example of Microsoft's confusing product naming.

There are two components to Xbox Music. One is an a la carte service that lets you buy tracks or albums individually. Its music selection is comprehensive and superb; Microsoft claims it has 18 million tracks in the U.S. from which to choose.

The second component is the Xbox Music Pass, a subscription service. For $10 per month, you get streaming access to those 30 million songs, and can also download them to your devices for offline listening. (If you cancel your subscription, you'll no longer have access to them.) Your playlists, music and albums sync across your devices. There's also a Pandora-like Smart DJ feature.

In addition, there's a free version of the subscription service that lets you listen to unlimited streaming music for six months for free, although you'll have to listen to ads. After six months, you're limited to 10 hours per month of listening.

The Xbox Music app and subscription service don't get nearly as much publicity as competitors like iTunes or Spotify. Despite that, though, it's a winner, and is good enough to make people forget the ill-begotten Zune digital music player -- if you're not one of the users still forced to use it, of course.

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