When I first saw the headlines last week, I assumed Google Play was simply a rebranding of Google Music, an MP3 download and storage service that launched last year. But that's actually only part of it. Google has taken four of its multimedia services and collapsed them into Google Play so that users can access all of their content in one place. Google Play incorporates Google Music, Movies, Books (eBooks) and the Android Market. Books, music (up to 20,000 songs, regardless of where you downloaded them from), and even rented movies, can be stored on Google's free cloud-based service and accessed by a computer or Android smartphone or tablet anywhere that there's an Internet connection. Google Play will also keep your apps in sync on all your devices, or let you buy an app on one device but install it on another.
Apple users will find Google Play similar to what Apple offers in its iTunes software and iCloud service, which together back up apps, music and other media online - in addition to offering apps, music and movies for sale.
So how will this affect you?
It's all in the name. Google's mobile app store, previously called the Android Market, has been renamed Google Play Store. If you have an Android phone that update will be pushed out to you soon, if it hasn't happened already -- you'll have to agree to their new terms of service first, though. Google's other services will be renamed as well, to Google Play Music, Google Play Books, and Google Play Movies. (In the U.S. at least; Play will work differently in other countries.)
The benefit of using these Google Play services is that your music, eBooks and movies will be stored in "the cloud." In simple terms, this means the data will be saved on Google's server and not on your device, so you don't have to worry about running out of storage space. This also means you'll need a data or Wi-Fi connection to access your content -- but you can pick and choose books, music, and movies that you'd like to access offline (like for a plane trip.) On your Android device, you can access all of your media in the Play Store app, in addition to the separate apps for music, books and movies. Google Play isn't just for Android users, though-- any Google user can take advantage of the cloud service.
I'm an Android user myself and currently own a Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone and an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. While Google Play offers a cleaner experience, I already enjoy similar benefits -- some from Google and some from Amazon.
On this last point, I ran into an unexpected issue: none of the apps' data was saved. Angry Birds, for example, did not retain my game progress. While that's not the end of the world -- I was surprised to find that Google didn't have a solution in place, especially considering how often people upgrade their smartphones. (To be fair, Angry Birds creator Rovio doesn't offer a solution either.) There are third party apps that can back up your Android phone, but each has its limitations and none are straightforward. I ended up turning to an app called Angry Birds Backup to save my game progress, but it wasn't terribly easy to use. On the other hand, Apple's iTunes and iCloud services are able to back up your app data so you can pick up where you left off on Angry Birds and other games when you upgrade to a new iPhone. Come on Google!
The Play Store is now live at play.google.com. Let us know what you think.