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Is Google preparing to challenge iTunes in the cloud?

The search giant has expressed interest in acquiring Catch Media, a company focused on cloud media that could help Google keep pace with Apple's streaming music plans.

As the four biggest record companies wait to hear more about a proposed iTunes cloud music service, word comes now that Google has kicked the tires on a start-up specializing in cloud media.

Google has showed interest in possibly acquiring Los Angeles-based Catch Media, a company that intends to help make it simple for consumers to enjoy their digital movies, music, and books across numerous different hardware and service platforms, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations. It's unclear whether talks between Google and Catch have gone beyond informal discussions.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris
Google CEO Eric Schmidt (left) and Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris prepare to shake hands at the Vevo launch party two months ago. Greg Sandoval/CNET

If Google did acquire the company, it could help the search giant keep pace with Apple's expected efforts to take iTunes to cloud computing. Last month, CNET reported that Apple has spoken to the top labels about plans to offer a streaming music service free of charge to consumers. Before agreeing to any new licensing deals, the labels are waiting for Apple to supply more information.

A Google spokesman responded to a request for comment by writing: "While we're always talking to various people about various things, we don't comment on rumor or speculation." A representative from Catch declined to comment.

Catch doesn't offer or store content. The company wants to be to digital media what Plus, Cirrus, and ATM networks are to the banking industry. Catch has developed a technology that helps hardware companies and service providers register, track, route and clear digital media as it moves across different platforms.

If Catch has its way, consumers will one day access media from different vendors and devices as easily as people withdraw money from any available ATM.

Founded in 2003 by brothers Boaz Ben-Yaacov and Yaacov Ben-Yaacov, Catch is focused on cloud-based music at this early stage in its development, sources said. In order to enable the cross-platform accessing of songs, Catch has licensed music from all four major record labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and EMI Music.

Conceivably, Catch is one way Google could equip Android cellphone owners with a means to access their iTunes music libraries.

Google's interest in a start-up focused on cloud music has sparked speculation within the recording industry about the search engine's music plans.

According to a December story in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Google was attempting to buy Lala, but Apple won out.

In December, Apple paid more than $80 million to acquire the company, which enables users to store a copy of their music libraries on the its servers and then access those songs from anywhere they can connect to the Web.

Barely two months prior to Lala's acquisition, Google made news by partnering with the streaming service on a music-search deal. One music industry source said Google began circling Catch soon after losing Lala.

Because Google was pursuing an acquisition of Lala, some in the music industry see the search engine's interest in Catch as part of a larger effort by Google to go deeper into digital music.

According to music sources, the industry would welcome a new music venture from Google CEO Eric Schmidt with open arms, sort of like how the chiefs of three of the largest labels literally welcomed Schmidt to the Vevo launch party in December.

Google's YouTube has already become one of the Web's biggest music outlets. Music videos at YouTube and Vevo, a site created by three top labels with YouTube's help, attract millions of viewers each day.

The music industry has said for years that it would prefer an iTunes rival to emerge. As Apple and Google's businesses increasingly begin to collide, who better than to face down Jobs and Apple than Schmidt and Google?