While Zune Pass had always been a great service, Microsoft lacked the marketshare to actually push it on devices. The Zune lineup, made to compete with Apple’s iPod, never caught on, and Windows Phone 7 has proven to lack a strong following. Xbox Music is set to change this, coming out tomorrow on Xbox 360’s and later this month on Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8, a mobile platform still not even launched. iOS and Android apps are coming too either later in the year or in 2013, however Windows 7, Mac OS X and Windows Phone 7 users will be missing the party entirely. A web version is also expected to come, but no official dates are available, and it’s currently, according to Microsoft, only a blip on their Xbox Music roadmap.
With over 30 million songs, Xbox Music is Microsoft’s definitive competitor to iTunes, Spotify, Rdio and every other music service, with Microsoft hoping that their all-in-one approach to music will give them a booster. They also attempt to boast their large device availability, although behind the marketing speak is the grim reality that the only big audience for Xbox Music, at launch, is through the Xbox 360. And that didn’t work well enough for Zune Pass to be seen as a success. In fact, if you want to use Xbox Music this year, then you’ll need a new phone and a copy of Windows 8, compared to Spotify working on almost any device right now, but ironically not Windows Phone 7.
Don Mattrick, president of the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, says that they’re “breaking down the walls that fracture your music experiences today to ensure that music is better and integrated across the screens that you care about most — your tablet, PC, phone and TV,” missing the major, or in Microsoft’s eyes minor, fact that, at launch, it’s another Microsoft only affair, something you’d think they’d have learnt from through the failed Zune service.
Xbox Music aims to be the ubiquitous music service. It has purchases, like iTunes, buffet-mode, like Spotify, and ‘artist-radio’ like (perhaps) Pandora. On Windows 8 tablets and PCs, Xbox Music will have a free, ad-supported streaming plan, meaning Windows 8 users will have an instant music library of 30 million songs, free, but online only. After 6 months, there will be a 10-hour a month limit for free streaming.
For offline access an Xbox Music Pass will be needed, as expected, starting at the same price as Spotify Premium, $11.99. This Pass will also unlock ‘tens of thousands’ of music videos, said to include more videos than Vevo.
If you prefer to own music, the Xbox Music Store is an iTunes-style MP3 store, with music available on Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.
Then there’s Smart DJ, the Pandora-style key to music discovery on Xbox Music, will allow, to quote from the press release, “a quick and dynamic way to personalise your collection”. Unlimited skips is the key benefit Smart DJ offers compared to the competition.
And as we’ve already seen, this launch is basically just a rebranding of Zune Pass, with features such as an iTunes Match clone, with cloud uploads for unavailable songs, and iOS and Android apps, as I’ve said a number of times, ‘coming soon’. It makes you wonder why Microsoft is rushing Windows 8 and Xbox Music, instead of giving them more time to be relevant. Currently, the only change Xbox Music brings is music videos. Everything else remains unchanged, leaving the lack of Windows Phone 7 support to be less painful.
The included press release says Xbox Music will “[take] full advantage of every screen on which you enjoy music,” but that’s only as long as you only enjoy music on your Xbox 360. For any other support, new products are needed. For desktop listening, you’ll need a Windows 8 PC, which could be as simple as a $40 upgrade or as expensive as a new computer. For mobile, you’ll need a brand new Windows Phone 8 device, seeing as none of the new additions, not even branding, will be making their way to Windows Phone 7. Plus there’s no iOS or Android support at launch, which means this is dead on arrival. It’s hard to see benefits compared to Spotify, in my opinion. And, the facts above show that it’s more than an opinion. There is nothing that Spotify can’t do today except for music videos.
The true question in regards to Xbox Music is whether you want to trust a company that has its own software platform to provide a universal service or whether you want to trust a truly third-party provider like Spotify. As we’ve seen with Apple’s iTunes, an ecosystem lock-in can outweigh the initial convenience of using it. This isn’t a Microsoft exclusive problem. I wouldn’t subscribe to a Apple or Microsoft service simply because I’m not going to have my phone, tablet or computer defined by an ecosystem. Spotify gives me the choice to use any device. If you trust Microsoft to treat iOS and Android as equally as their own platforms, then Xbox Music could be a great competitor to Spotify. However, it’s still yet to be seen whether they do that, and seeing as the launch doesn’t yet support these platforms, it’s not a good start. What’s the point? Don’t ask me. Maybe this video might help.