Consolidation aims to compete with Apple, Amazon

Google is looking to catch up to Apple and Amazon with a revamped approach to digital content that crosses platforms and media.

The search giant announced Tuesday plans to unify Android Market, the apps storefront for its popular mobile operating system, with film rentals, Google Music and Google eBookstore under the umbrella brand of Google Play.

The aim is to provide competition to similar yet more centralized offerings like Apple’s iTunes, as well as to consolidate features that were previously spread over several platforms.

Through Google Play, music, books, films and apps will all be available through the cloud, meaning that content purchased or stored through Google can be wirelessly accessed on a user’s connected smartphone, tablet and desktop. Users can also seamlessly stop and restart content consumption across those devices.

Conspicuously absent from the Google Play announcement was Google TV, another entry into the hardware business that would be a natural platform for the new unified approach to content distribution. But industry observers noted that Google Play is likely just a first phase of an even broader redefinition of its content strategy.

The launch of Google Play constitutes a major rebranding of Google’s Android Marketplace, which bowed in 2008. According to the company, there are 450,000 apps and games available through Android, and will continue to be available through Google Play.

While Google’s content offerings were previously inside the Android environment, they will be more prominently featured going forward in a redesign that will accompany the rebranding. If anything, removing the Android name will correct misperceptions that content was only available to Android-powered devices; Google Play can make content purchasing and streaming possible via Web browsers as well.

Google Play is a strategy right out of the Apple playbook, which has tightly integrated the company’s content offerings with its own cloud solution, iCloud, and its myriad devices that move content around via its patented Airplay system. Amazon has made strides in that direction as well via its Kindle Fire tablet, which has been positioned as a vehicle for media consumption across the company’s robust online retail offerings.

While Google isn’t in the hardware business the way Apple and Amazon is, Google Play could very well reflect the growing consensus that the search giant’s future will be more device-centric. Google chairman Eric Schmidt hinted late last year that the company could partner on the deployment of a Nexus tablet and teamed last year with Samsung and Asus on Chromebooks, a line of laptops powered by its Chrome browser.

Apple reported $1.7 billion in sales from iTunes in the fourth quarter of last year. Google hasn’t disclosed its own content sales figures, though it hasn’t been shy about Android’s commanding market share in the mobile category. Still, the 10 billion app downloads Google reported in Android last December are a far cry from the 25 billion Apple reportedfor its own App Store earlier this week.

The timing of the Google Play announcement may not be entirely coincidental coming just one day before Apple is expected to unveil a new version of the iPad. But it will take a lot more than Google Play to steal the thunder of Apple’s tablet and the huge success it has enjoyed, particularly as a device for media consumption.

The newest of Google’s primary content markets, Google Music launched last November amid significant fanfare, though the service has since been beset by reports of underperformance, as well as its continued inability to reach a content deal with Warner Music Group (deals with Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and EMI were completed before launch). The company recently indicated Google Music’s consumer base has grown to 4 million users.

Now to be redubbed Play Music, the service will still allow new music purchases, as well as storage of up to 20,000 songs in the cloud for free.

Google has made movies available via Android since May of last year under a separate tab where titles can be accessed for rentals as low as $1.99. Available films are are an extension of YouTube Store, a destination for titles Google has brought in via deals with Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and Universal Pictures last April.

But Google hasn’t had much success with YouTube Store, according to sources, a problem that Google Play could help correct by providing a storefront more conducive to digital rentals. Like Google TV, YouTube was conspicuously absent from the Google Play announcement, and just as the brand is making strides to push more premium content via a $100 million plan to push a new portfolio of channels with original programming.

Google eBookstore has been active since 2010, the end result of the company’s controversial efforts to scan hundreds of millions of books.

Google Play was announced in a blog post by Google’s director of digital content, Jamie Rosenberg. The change is expected the roll out over the next several days. The company will tubthump the service this week by offering deals on featured music, ebooks, games and films.

Each individual Google-operated app for music, books and film will also be renamed with the new Play brand. Consumers will retain purchases previously made through those apps.

While Google Play will have a global deployment, Google doesn’t offer all types of media in every region as it does in the U.S.

Watch the YouTube spot:

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