I’ve been waiting for many months to tell this story. But with the announcement today of Xbox Music, Microsoft’s far-reaching replacement for Zune Music, Windows users finally have the music service they’ve been waiting for, with free streaming, a continuation of the excellent Music Pass subscription, a cloud-based music locker, and more. And next year, it’s coming to Android and iOS too.
On July 6, I started writing an article called Choosing Xbox, which came in the wake of my What I Use-based revelation that I was dropping Apple products from my household. Many questioned this decision, and while I wanted to more fully explain it, at the time, Microsoft had curiously and unexpectedly not made a full disclosure about its Xbox Music plans at E3, and it was basically impossible to adequately discuss this decision until they did so.
(Remember: Microsoft announced some, but not all, Xbox Music features at E3. Please refer to Xbox Music Preview -E3 for more info.)
So I waited. And waited. But now Microsoft, finally, has announced its plans for Xbox Music. And now, finally, I can tell you: This is why.
Xbox Music appears to be the ultimate music service, combining features that previously required you maintaining two or more different services. It has the a la carte MP3 purchases of an iTunes or Amazon MP3. It has the online music locker features of Google Play Music or Amazon Cloud Player. It has the unlimited paid streaming from Zune Music Pass. And it has free, radio-style streaming, albeit it with even better functionality, that you could get from Spotify or Pandora.
And now it’s all available in one place. That place is called Xbox Music.
Previously considered a simple rebranding of the Zune Music services, Xbox Music is in fact much more than that, a major functional superset that rewards users of Microsoft’s core platforms, Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox. It works a bit differently on devices running each system, go figure, though as you’ll see, I think the functionality provided to each is tailored to the needs of the device.
Here’s what you’ll get with Xbox Music.
Catalog. Xbox Music provides a catalog of over 30 million songs, making it one of the largest music store collections in the world. (That 30 million figure is the total global track count, by the way: In the US, it's about 18 million tracks.)
Free streaming. Users of Windows 8 and Windows RT PCs and devices will be able to stream the entire Xbox Music catalog for free (but with ads) using the Xbox Music app that comes with Windows 8/RT. This access will be unlimited for the first 6 months of use, Microsoft tells me, after which it will be limited to 10 hours per month.
Xbox Music Pass. The replacement for Zune Music Pass works much like before: It’s $9.99 a month in the US, provides unlimited, ad-free streaming forever, and users with Windows 8 and Windows RT PCs and devices, and Windows Phone handsets, can download any songs they want to the device for offline use. (Xbox 360 is streaming-only.) Xbox Music Pass also provides streaming and download access to Xbox Music’s collection of music videos.
Playlists. Playlists created on any Xbox Music-connected device (Windows 8 PCs, Windows RT devices, Windows Phone handsets, Xbox 360) are stored in the cloud and available to any of your other devices.
Radio-like stations. Using Smart DJ, you can create dynamic playlists based on a favorite artist, helping you discover and enjoy music similar to music you know you like. These playlists cannot be saved to the cloud and accessed on multiple devices, but they are easy enough to recreate in multiple places.
Xbox Cloud Collection. Microsoft, finally, is providing a cloud-based music locker for your own collection so that you can access it from any device at any time (while online). You can stream your own collection on the go, or download songs to any compatible device for offline use, and Microsoft will implement a “scan and match” feature, similar to Apple iTunes Match or what Amazon provides in Cloud Player, so that you don’t actually have to upload your entire collection for this to work: Instead, it will detect what you have and make those songs available from the Xbox Music collection.
Xbox 360. I should at least discuss the one downside to Xbox Music: To fully take advantage of this service on the Xbox 360, you’ll need two subscriptions: Xbox LIVE Gold, which is about $60 a year, and Xbox Music Pass, which again is $9.99 a month.
Coming soon: Android, iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch (and web). Yes, Microsoft will release Xbox Music apps for Android and iOS in 2013 so that you can access Xbox Music services from competing devices too. Microsoft will also release a web client for Xbox Music, similar to what's available now for Zune (where Zune Pass subscribers can stream music from the Zune web site.) This too will happen early next year.
Coming soon: Social features. Microsoft will be adding Zune-like social features in the coming year too, so that you can share your music preferences and discoveries with friends and family.
Exciting stuff? You bet. And it removes any lingering doubts about jettisoning Apple and its digital media ecosystem. Apple has always treated Windows users like unwanted intruders, and its iTunes software on Windows is an embarrassment. With Xbox Music, Windows users will finally get the music services they deserve. And it all starts on Tuesday, when Xbox Music starts rolling out.
Here's a quick video promo for Xbox Music, from Microsoft: