How Will Google's Rumored Music Service Work? (Updated: Oh, Like This)S

Earlier this year, Google launched an iTunes-style music download service in China. The twist? All the music was free. Now, Techcrunch says a US launch of a Google music service is imminent. Could it be free, too? Doubtful.

Google's already got a decent music search engine in place, and they've got plenty of experience designing iTunes-like client apps like Picasa, but let's not get ahead of ourselves—we don't even know what this thing is, how it'll be supported, what kind of content it'll have, or how much it'll cost. Consider their Chinese service, Top100.cn: The free, all-you-can-eat model makes sense there, where download piracy rates approach 100% and music industry revenues, despite massive listenership, don't even touch $90 million dollars. in that context, Google's projected $14.6 million in ad revenue counts as a victory.

But here, the music industry sees ten billion dollars pass through its hands on a yearly basis, and people still (occasionally!) pay for music. Even assuming higher per-click ad values, it's hard to see how Google could just give full downloads out for free. Maybe it could stream, like Spotify? Or, you know, just sell music, like iTunes? Techcrunch doesn't seem to have much in the way of leads on this, but they leave it here:

We're still gathering details, but our understanding is the service will be very different to the Google China music download service that they launched in 2008. That service, which is only available in China, allows users to search for music and download it for free.

Place your bets in the comments.

UPDATE: Peter Kafka at AllThingsD has some sources of his own, all of whom seem to want to pee on our parade:

Sources describe the service, which will be called "One Box", as a refined set of answers for music queries. The idea: Punch in, say, "Madonna", and you'll be presented with one or more songs, which may be partial clips or full-length versions, then guided to other sites where you can purchase the music.

He fingers iLike and LaLa as the primary music providers. All in all, this just sounds like a new search interface—not a new iTunes, Spotify-killer, or anything else worth getting overly excited about. Oh well! [Techcrunch, AllThingsD]