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Google's music plan part of fresh wave of upgrades

SAN FRANCISCO Google Inc. (GOOG) unveiled a streaming music service called All Access that blends songs users have already uploaded to their online libraries with millions of other tracks. Google made it available in the U.S. Wednesday for $8 a month to early birds who sign up for service before June 30.

In addition to a 30-day free trial, the offer shaves $2 off the price of popular paid subscription plans from Spotify and Rhapsody. The service is an attempt by the world's dominant Internet company to carve itself a bigger piece of the digital music pie as more people listen to streaming music on mobile devices.

The announcement Wednesday at Google's annual developers conference in San Francisco kicks off a wave of developments as technology giants go beyond core music fans and look to entice more casual listeners.

Rival Apple Inc. (AAPL) is expected to debut a digital radio service later this year that will drive more people to its iTunes music store; Google-owned YouTube is also working on a paid subscription music plan with a deeper catalog of songs than it has now; and Sweden's Spotify is exploring a way to make a version of its paid streaming plan free through ads on mobile devices, according to a person in the music industry familiar with the matter.

The person was not authorized to speak publicly about the developments because the deals and features on the services have not been finalized.

Google is playing catch-up in the digital music space after launching its music store in November 2011. Apple's iTunes Store, which launched in 2003, is the leader in song downloads, and Spotify claims about 6 million paying subscribers worldwide.

But Google's massive reach on mobile devices that use its Android operating system means it could narrow the gap quickly. Some 44 percent of active smartphones in the U.S., or about 53 million, are powered by the Android software, according to research firm eMarketer. Google said about 900 million Android devices have been activated worldwide.

All Access is expected to roll out soon in 12 other countries where Google currently sells music, including 10 European countries, including the U.K., France and Germany, as well as Australia and New Zealand. After the early-bird period, the monthly fee will go back up to the industry standard $10.

Google's All Access allows users to search for songs, albums or artists directly, or peruse 22 different genres. Google also offers up recommendations based on your listening behavior and your existing library of songs.

You can listen to any of millions of tracks right away, or switch to a "radio'' format that creates a playlist of songs you might like. Radio playlists can be adjusted on the fly by deleting or reordering upcoming songs. You can cache songs on the device for playback outside of cell phone or Wi-Fi service.

"This is radio without rules,'' said Chris Yerga, engineering director of Android. "This is as lean-back as you want or as interactive as you want.''

By combining an all-you-can-listen-to plan with music sold from its Google Play store, the service covers any gaps. Some artists, like Taylor Swift, keep recent releases off of streaming services for several months in order to boost download sales. The combination also means people can listen to their own specialized music or bootleg recordings alongside the millions of tracks available from Google.

All three major recording labels -- Vivendi's Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group Corp. -- are part of the All Access service.

Listening to music streamed over cell phone networks has become extremely popular. According to research firm eMarketer, over 96 million Americans are expected to stream music on mobile devices at least once a week in 2013, up from 85 million a year ago. About 147 million Americans are expected to stream music on the go at least once a month this year.