Trying to Be Optimistic About a Google Music-Streaming System

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The Wall Street Journal‘s Amir Efrati and Ethan Smith are reporting that Google is working on a consumer-electronics system designed to stream music–and, eventually, maybe video and other media–around the home. Their story doesn’t have much in the way of detail, but does say that Google’s brainchild might be akin to a lower-cost version of Sonos’s excellent-but-pricey music-streaming products.

Absent more details, there are several ways to respond to this sketchy bit of news. One is to wonder why Google, which says it wants to keep focused on fewer, more important products, cares about the relatively mature market that Sonos pioneered.

(MORE: Google Reportedly Building Cloud Storage Service to Rival Dropbox)

Another is to do what the Business Insider’s Matt Rosoff has done: point out that Google has no track record of designing, selling and supporting successful consumer devices. (Rosoff, despite apparently knowing no more about Google’s plans than you or me, has already decided that Google’s new product will be “a total disaster.”)

You might also worry, as I do, that Google is being drawn into consumer electronics simply out of an obsessive desire to take on Apple rather, not because it’s good at this stuff.

In short, it’s easy to be skeptical about the scuttlebutt, and tougher to be optimistic. But let’s try.

Google is at its best when it’s being truest to its mission. No, not “Don’t be evil.” The other one: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Its namesake search engine, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth–they’re all about organization and providing fast access to important information.

Google offering Google-branded streaming hardware sounds mundane; Google figuring out how to organize music as well as it organizes the web, e-mail and geography has more potential. We may have a dizzying array of apps, services and technologies to help us do that–from iTunes to Spotify to Airplay to Pandora–but it’s not unthinkable that Google could come up with something that’s both new and transcendently wonderful.

Then again, Google already is trying to organize music. The results, Google Music, are merely OK–similar to what Amazon is doing with its MP3 Store and Cloud Player, but less slick. Even if Google Music somehow fits into Google’s new hardware system, it’ll have to add something much more innovative in the way of software and/or services to make the package noteworthy.

(MORE: Google Music Store Launched with Free Track Sharing, Exclusive Content)

And even innovation alone isn’t going to be enough. Google TV has been such a disappointment to date that the world has forgotten that it’s a wildly ambitious product: It tries to neatly sort thousands of messy hours of TV programming, plus even more video from the web, into something that’s as easy to use as Google’s search engine. The goal is noble; it’s just that Google hasn’t come anywhere near achieving it yet.

What if Google’s streaming system isn’t coupled with some sort of landmark music-organizing service? Maybe the company is just trying to build a bridge between Android phones and home-entertainment devices–one akin to Apple’s Airplay, which lets iOS devices beam music and video to a TV connected to an Apple TV box. You can use DLNA to accomplish Airplay-like feats with an Android phone, but the user interface isn’t so hot. If all Google does is make Android streaming as easy as Airplay, it’ll have accomplished something.

The WSJ story says that Google intends to release its streaming system later this year. I’m hoping that when the details go public, it’ll be immediately clear why Google is doing this–whatever it is that Google turns out to be doing.