Microsoft launches Xbox Music: What you need to know

Let’s face it, Zune is a joke—literally. It was a punchline on The Simpsons just last week. Although many of the Zune products earned high marks from the press, the brand has become the poster child for “that me-too gadget nobody really wants.” Rather than put more weight behind a failed brand, Microsoft decided to kill the Zune player and service, preparing to replace it with Xbox Music. Now, the launch of the new service is imminent, and we spent some time with Microsoft to discuss what's new. Xbox Music seems to be a strong competitor to other digital music services, but it has one significant problem: With strong ties to Xbox and Windows 8, its initial reach will be quite limited. Here’s everything you need to know about the new Xbox Music service.

Xbox Music is not Zune, but it is built from Zune

Xbox Music shares the back-end catalog of music and videos from Microsoft’s still-operating Zune service. The catalog now consists of 30 million tracks worldwide (over 18 million in the United States), with a small subset of those available only for purchase (no streaming allowed). Features such as SmartDJ are making the transition to the new service, along with a modified version of the Zune Pass subscription. The number of markets has expanded to 24. It’s full of familiar Zune touches, including rotating collages of big artist photography as you play tracks.

Not everything from the old Zune service is coming over to Xbox Music. Podcasts are absent from the Xbox Music catalog, since Microsoft believes that podcasts are best left to dedicated podcast apps and services. The $15-a-month Zune Pass is dropping to $10, but the “get ten free songs per month to own forever” part is gone, too.

The service has three price tiers

The vast majority of songs in the service are available for streaming, free of charge. You’ll just have to put up with a commercial, including both an audio and visual component, every 15 minutes or so. As music services go, that’s not bad. At launch, the free serivce will be availabe in 15 markets (geographical regions).

For $10 per month, the Xbox Music Pass lets you get rid of the ads, and allows you to mark tracks for download so that you can play them offline on PCs or mobile devices. Note that downloading for offline play is not available on the Xbox 360, but you can still get your music ad-free. Microsoft will be offering a 30-day trial of the Music Pass (an improvement from the 14-day Zune Pass). This service will be available in 22 markets at launch.

Last but not least, you can buy individual tracks or albums just as you can on iTunes and other popular music stores. Costs are said to be in line with those of other major stores, with most top tracks costing $1.29, and discounts for buying whole albums. Buying tracks is available only on PCs and mobile devices, and you can do so using either a credit card or Microsoft Points. The store will be availalbe in the same 22 markets as the Xbox Music Pass service.

It’s initially all about Xbox, Windows 8, and Windows Phone 8

Xbox Music will be the default music application appearing front and center on every Windows 8 PC’s Start screen. It’s a Modern UI app, meaning that it doesn’t run on the traditional desktop and is fully built for touch. Windows 8 will be available in a lot more countries than the limited markets Xbox Music will service, and on those other PCs and tablets Xbox Music will simply function as a player for local music. The Windows 8 app, which is really your best entry to the storefront, will ship along with Windows 8 (or as an update to the music app for those who already have it) on October 26. Microsoft says it will continue to expand the regions where the Xbox Music services are available from the 15/22 previously mentioned.

Xbox Music replaces Zune in the Xbox 360 fall dashboard update.

Beginning this week, Xbox 360 users will get the new fall dashboard, which includes Xbox Music. On the console, the service is all about streaming your library from the cloud—you have no way to purchase music or to go offline, as you’re required to be connected to Xbox Live. The Xbox 360 version includes a “Smart VJ” feature for music videos, and of course is fully Kinect enabled. Unfortunately, the Xbox 360 experience requires and Xbox Live Gold subscription. This seems short-sighted to me. Whether they're trying to increase their base for generating ad revenue or trying to get more people to fork over $10 a month for the paid service, you'd think reaching all those free Xbox Live users would be a priority. Limiting the service to the Xbox Live Gold members feels like being double-charged.

Xbox Music will ship as part of Windows Phone 8 as well, becoming available when those phones hit the market. We’ll hear more about the exact release dates at a Windows Phone 8 event on October 29.

What about iOS, Android, Windows 7, and Mac OS?

Microsoft promises that iOS and Android versions of Xbox Music are on the way. Officially, the timeframe is “within the first year,” but unofficially, Microsoft is aiming to make them available quickly.

Support for other systems is a little fuzzy. Part of that “within the first year, but really pretty soon” plan is to have a Web-based client that will work on any platform; this is how music fans with Macs or previous versions of Windows would be serviced. The idea is worrisome, as Web clients often have significant limitations (such as no access to local files), but we have no details on Microsoft’s plans in this area.

Scan and Match is included, Lockers are coming soon

Though we didn’t see the feature in action, Xbox Music will have the ability to scan your local system for music files that you own, match them to the store, and then mark them as “owned” for streaming to other devices, as long as they’re available as streaming-capable songs in the service. In this way, it’s similar to iTunes Match and Amazon Cloud Player. On a Windows 8 PC, Scan and Match will find all the music in your My Music folder (including DRM-free iTunes AAC files, which the software can play just fine), and then you can see all those files on your other devices and choose to stream or download them. On the Xbox 360, you'll have only the option to stream, but nearly all your music will at least be available.

What about songs on your system that aren’t matched, such as live recordings or strange albums that aren’t in Microsoft’s database? Microsoft promises the ability to upload those tracks to a Locker as part of a future update, but the option won’t be available at launch.

Compression is 192-kbps WMA or 256-kbps MP3

If you’re streaming music from the cloud, or downloading songs as part of your Music Pass subscription, the files will be in WMA format, encoded at 192 kbps. Tracks that you purchase and download will be DRM-free 256-kbps MP3s. No other quality options are available.

It’s progressive downloads, not streaming

When you stream music, you don’t really stream it. The service actually starts a progressive download of the current song, even starting to download the following song, while playing it immediately. In theory, this approach will make the service far more tolerant of brief losses of connectivity.

There’s no social integration yet

If you're hoping for direct integration with Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking, you'll have to hold on for a while: At launch, Xbox Music will have no integration with social networks. (You can, of course, use the Share charm on Windows 8 to link to things, but the Xbox Music service itself doesn't integrate directly with any social network.) You'll have no way to collaborate on a playlist with friends or automatically see what your friends are listening to. Microsoft promises social features in a future update, but we have no details about what those features will be or how they'll work.

Playlists sync across devices, but you can't share them on social networks yet.

One-hit wonder, or greatest hits?

It’s too early to say how Xbox Music will fare. Right out of the gate, its reach will be quite limited. Sure, there are tens of millions of Xbox 360 owners, but getting the most from Xbox Music requires using it on a PC or mobile device. Initially, access will be restricted to those who upgrade to Windows 8 or buy a new Windows 8 PC, or who jump on board the Windows Phone 8 bandwagon. Those people with Windows 7 PCs or Windows Phone 7 handsets can use existing Zune software and access the same music library, but all the new features won’t work.

For those who will buy a Windows 8 device or upgrade their Windows OS, Xbox Music has a serious advantage. It puts a strong music-streaming service—with both subscription and ad-supported options and a music-purchasing store, combined with multidevice cloud syncing—all right into your device, with no app downloading or additional sign-ups necessary. The reach of Windows 8 alone means tens of millions of potential customers, but in the short term, Windows 8 by itself doesn't constitute a big enough market.

Microsoft recognizes that the world is a lot bigger than just those people who immediately upgrade to the latest Microsoft gear. It knows that there are hundreds of millions of iPhone and Android users who aren’t going to jump ship anytime soon, as well as computer users who won’t (or can’t) upgrade to Windows 8 or who prefer the Mac. The decision to limit the Xbox Music launch to the Windows 8 ecosystem was based on a practical consideration—it’s what the company had to focus on to deliver high quality in time for the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 launch. Nonetheless, competing services such as Spotify, Rdio, and iTunes all have native Windows and Mac software, and most will run on multiple mobile platforms (iTunes excepted, of course).

If Microsoft hopes to shake off its Zune history and make Xbox Music a huge hit, it needs to enable broad support outside Microsoft’s own ecosystem, even extending beyond computers and mobile devices to media-streaming products and the like. If Microsoft can continue to add value to Xbox Music while drastically extending its reach, it could be the music service to beat.

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