A few weeks back, I started an examination of Microsoft's consumer services, which I believe to be overlooked or misunderstood by many users. Microsoft no longer pushes a Windows-first/Windows-only strategy, and with "mobile first, cloud first" it is instead trying to ensure that its services provide a first class experience on all mobile platforms. And Xbox Music is a key example of a Microsoft consumer service that outclasses the competition, is available everywhere, and is yet ignored by, or unknown to, many.
Check out Consumer Apps and Services: Microsoft's Often-Overlooked Crown Jewels for the article that touched off this series. Also, the articles Bing Apps Rebranded as MSN, Will Move Cross-Platform This Year and MSN Relaunch: Microsoft's Content Brand Enters the Mobile First, Cloud First Era touch on Microsoft's consumer services strategy as well.
Note: I was originally going to start this series with a peek at Outlook.com. But Microsoft's consumer email, calendar and contacts service is a huge topic, so I'm pushing that one a bit further back in the queue so I can focus first on some of the more obscure services that I feel many ignore or don't know about.
I love Xbox Music. I use it on all my devices, and I recommend it highly. I'm so taken by this service, in fact, that I'm currently writing the second edition of Xbox Music Field Guide, a free e-book that explains all of the features offered by this service across all of the most modern platforms it supports. Please head on over to my Field Guide Books web site and grab the latest update to this book. (It should be completed soon, and of course I'll continue updating it as Microsoft improves the services and mobile apps.)
As I note in Xbox Music Field Guide, Xbox Music is the world's first all-in-one digital music service, combining virtually all the features from services such as iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and others, into a single service accessed via a single account and available on all of the PCs and other devices you actually use. For the first time, you don't need to join multiple services to meet all of your music needs, and you don't need to jump from service to service on your PCs and devices to enjoy your favorite music, wherever you are and wherever you want.
Xbox Music is a modern cloud service that puts the cloud—and not a PC—at the center of the equation. That is, rather than use the old-fashioned approach were your "master" music collection and playlists are stored on a single hard drive on a single PC, and then synced to mobile devices, Xbox Music puts your collection in the cloud where it belongs. You can then access this collection from anywhere, streaming while online or download for offline usage if you prefer that.
And Xbox Music really is available from everywhere. There are full-featured versions of Xbox Music clients on iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android handsets and tablets, Windows Phone 7.x and 8.x handsets, Windows 8.x/RT tablets, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and on the Web. You can even use Xbox Music for free, building your collection in the cloud using almost any of the music in the Xbox Music Store, though if you wish to access that music offline—or use Xbox Music on certain device types, like Android and iOS—you will need an inexpensive Xbox Music Pass subscription as well. It's worth the price.
Here are the major features of Xbox Music.
Collection. With Xbox Music your music collection is stored in the cloud, and not just on a single PC or device. This core feature of Xbox Music is what separates this service most obviously from its predecessor, Zune, and from many rival services. Under the previous scheme, you were forced to duplicate your PC-based music collection—including albums and songs, of course, but also playlists and radio stations—across your various devices. With Xbox Music, you store all of your music in your cloud-based collection, which will then be accessible from all of your devices automatically.
Free music streaming. On Xbox Music for Windows 8.1 and Xbox Music for Web, Microsoft offers free music streaming from its catalog of 30 million-plus songs. This feature lets you listen to individual songs or full albums for free, even if you don't pay for an Xbox Music Pass subscription. You must sign-in to Windows or Windows Phone—or to Xbox Music specifically—with a Microsoft account. (The Xbox Music app for Windows lets you stream 15 songs for free before requiring you do so, however.) And the service is ad-supported unless you have an Xbox Music Pass. And after six months, it will be limited to 10 hours of streaming per month after that initial period, unless of course you pay for an Xbox Music Pass.
Xbox Music Store. Like rival services such as Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3 and Google Play Music, Xbox Music does of course allow you to purchase the music you want to own, in this case via the Xbox Music Store. The purchase experience works as you would expect. But though those with Xbox Music Pass subscriptions may find that the need to actually buy music has essentially disappeared.
Playlists. Xbox Music of course supports playlists on each of the supported platforms, and the playlists you create automatically sync to your cloud collection so they are available from all your devices. There are two downsides. Xbox Music only supports basic, or static, playlists, and not smart playlists. And playlists can only sync content that is available in the Xbox Music Store. So if you have a playlist that contains five songs which are in the store and five that are not, the playlist will sync across your devices, but it will contain only the five songs that are available in the store.
Radio. This feature lets create a special kind of dynamic playlist, called a radio station, which uses a favorite artist as "seed" music. That is, you supply the name of a favorite artist and radio creates a radio station of songs that are from artists similar to that artist. So radio stations are like Internet-based radio stations that you don't have to manually curate and manage. They help you discover new music by choosing songs that are based on the artists you already know you like. Radio stations also support unlimited skipping, unlike the similar functionality in some rival music services.
Music match. Xbox Music lets you move your existing music collection—which you may have acquired by ripping audio CDs, purchasing digital music from other services, or other means—to your personal cloud collection. This functionality is called music match, and it is available only via the Xbox Music app for Windows 8.1. You can manually match individual albums one-by-one to the Xbox Music Store library if you wish. But the Xbox Music app will automatically match albums in your PC's music library to the Xbox Music Store library. As albums are matched, they are silently added to your cloud-based collection and made available for streaming or download on all of your devices. But it doesn't (yet) support uploading music to your collection that can't be found in Xbox Music Store. There's always room for improvement.
Xbox Music Pass. This subscription service lets you stream almost all of the music in Microsoft's voluminous online music catalog with your PCs and devices. And on Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1, Android and iOS, you can also download music from the service to your devices for offline use. It is comparable to services like Spotify Premium or Rhapsody Premier Plus in that it provides unlimited streaming on compatible devices, lets you download music for offline use on a set number of devices (four, for Xbox Music Pass), removes the advertising found in the free streaming option, and integrates with other platform features, like Radio, that help you discover new music. It's a reasonable expense for music lovers at $9.99 per month, but you can sign up for a 12 month Music Pass for $99.90, which works out to just $8.35 per month. While Xbox Music Pass provides free unlimited streaming to all of your PCs and devices, you can assign up to four devices to be used for downloading music and listening to it offline.
Xbox One/Xbox 360 SmartGlass. Though it's not strictly an Xbox Music feature, Microsoft provides an amazing degree of integration between the various platforms that support Xbox Music via the Xbox One and Xbox 360 SmartGlass mobile apps for Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1, iOS (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad) and Android. SmartGlass provides a variety of "second screen" experiences in which you can interact with games and entertainments apps running on the console. While many of these experiences have nothing to do with music, Xbox One SmartGlass allows you to control Xbox Music playback on the console—and thus your HDTV and home theater system—from your PC or mobile device and use it like a smart remote control.
There's a lot more, of course. You can share music, learn more about artists, and pin favorite music to your Start screen (on Windows, Phone and Xbox). There's a wide world of functionality to explore here.
As I hint above, Xbox Music isn't perfect. It lacks a music locker feature for storing music you own but isn't found in the store. (It was promised.) Some features work better with an Xbox Music Pass, and this subscription is in fact required on Android and iOS. Playlist are limited to static playlists. The Android and iOS versions only mark playlists—but not albums, songs or artists—for offline use. And the Xbox One and Xbox 360 apps are streaming-only: You can't even purchase music from the Xbox Music Store with these consoles.
If you can get past these very specific complaints and omissions—many of which I do expect to be fixed over time—you will see that Xbox Music is actually pretty special. To discover this for yourself, just visit Xbox Music on the web. Without even signing in, you can arbitrarily play music. Sign in and you can build playlists and add music to your cloud collection. It's just there, for you to use. And enjoy.
And you should. Regardless of which devices you choose.