New Android Music App Hints at 2011 Streaming Wars

Streaming music from a computer or the web to a mobile device isn’t new, but 2011 is setting itself up for musical turf war that could add both Google (s goog) and Apple (s aapl) to the mix. In May, Google announced plans for music streaming in Android while in 2009, Apple purchased Lala, a music-based community coupled with streaming technology. Apple is also building a large data center in North Carolina, which could be used to store and serve digital media.

Google appears close to providing a streaming solution, if the media player software for Android 3.0 is any indication. Yesterday, an early build of the application was leaked, and it offers not only a vastly improved media playback experience, but also a second test app that looks like the basics needed for media streaming. I played with the beta app, called JumperTest, and see ways to import music and associate the application with either of my two Google accounts. In its current state, the app has a very limited interface, and although I can start a peer service, which I presume would allow for media sharing or streaming, I can’t access it on any other devices.

My expectation is that when completed, the JumperTest app will hook into Google Music, a digital storage locker for media streaming that will reportedly cost $25 per year. That service would likely depend on licensing arrangements between Google and the record labels, and it would compete with a number of existing third-party music streaming services, such as MP3Tunes, MOG, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Spotify (not yet available in the U.S.) just to name a few. Related: how to use some of these services to stream music from the cloud.

Apple, which doesn’t yet offer music streaming, may actually be in the best position to do so, however. The company has held the top spot for digital music downloads since passing Walmart (s wmt) back in 2008, accounting for 28 percent of all music sales, both physical and digital, earlier this year. As such, it wields considerable clout with the record labels and could negotiate favorable terms for media streaming. So why has Apple, and for that matter, Google, stayed out of music streaming until now?

There are probably several reasons that fit in with the long-term strategies of both companies, but I think the most prominent may be that of bandwidth and available data plans for mobile devices. For a positive music experience, consumers will need a stable and reasonably fast wireless broadband connection, barring any song buffer features. I’ve streamed music on a pokey EDGE or 2G connection in the past, and it can be hit-or-miss. Streaming over 3G, however, supports higher-quality playback, less buffering and fewer pauses due to a spotty connection.

This past year saw 3G mobile broadband network upgrades by all of the major carriers in the U.S., and next year will bring wider availability of 4G networks. As consumers adopt more smartphones, they’re going to be connecting to these faster networks, so music streaming experiences should improve to the point where Apple, Google and perhaps even Amazon (s amzn) (GigaOM Pro subscription required) can offer them, allowing consumers to finally stop worrying about how to sync music over to a handset.

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