Google versus Apple is most definitely the new Macs versus PCs, and Google is now pressing the point: There's a slew of news about improvements to YouTube, which it seems Amazon is priming as a key weapon against iTunes.
First up is the fact that Google's trying out a limited pay-per-view movie system. For starters it's just five movies from the Sundance festival, for around a $5 price (the exact amount is to be decided by the filmmakers), and Google is making some noise about the idea it'll be helping to promote these independent movies by giving them "distribution" of sorts, which otherwise they might not have. But it's also a way for Google to dip its toe in the waters of pay-per-view online movie and TV show distribution, and try out the mechanisms for payment, promotion and so on—giving the search giant a flavor for the kinds of audience it might attract.
Then, there's a new music discovery system on YouTube that's appeared in Google's Test Tube development environment. It's simplicity itself: You type in an artist's name and tap on the "disco" button. Google's algorithm rushes off and generates a playlist for you, even playing tracks and delivering data on the band responsible for the music you're listening to. It'll also suggest similar music, and let you build playlists—all of which sounds like a very powerful music front-end for YouTube's clip archive, turning it into a kind of on-demand online MTV. The sharing angle, which allows you to publish your playlists to friends, also sounds a little like the kind of social media music system employed by Twitter-associated systems like Blip.fm.
Lastly there's news directly from YouTube itself concerning its experimental limited implementation of HTML5 video—also in Test Tube. This new protocol means that video and audio playback can occur directly in the browser "without needing to download a browser plugin"—meaning systems like Adobe's oft-used but much-maligned Flash player. Google's keen to "be part of moving HTML5 forward on the Web," which is clearly smart as it's the future—even if its supported only by Apple's Safari, Google Chrome, and Chrome Frame in Microsoft's Internet Explorer for now.
Summing all this up, and doing a little speculation, one thing is evident: Google is trying to combat Apple, and the commanding position of its iTunes software for distributing music and video. Google's challenging Apple's paid movie content, and its Genius tune discovery system, possible future streaming music capabilities (courtesy of the Lala acquisition). The HTML5 code is possibly a response to Apple's shunning of Flash on the iPhone—which may, or may not, be echoed on the Apple Tablet—and the souring of Apple-Google relations regarding apps like Google Voice, and even the recent rumors about Apple courting Bing. Google could perhaps be accused of trying to make sure its services work on Apple's devices, come what may.
And the timing of all this is also ever so slightly curious—given that we know Apple's going to be making a rather big announcement just next week.