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Xbox Music Preview

I’ve got good news for Zune fans: Everything you love about today’s Zune music services will continue into the future, but will be rebranded with the Xbox name. I’ve also got good news for music fans: Even if you’ve ignored Zune so far, you’re about to get a set of music services in Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, and the Xbox 360 that blows away anything on other platforms. But the best news of all? Xbox Music isn’t just a simple rebranding of existing Zune offerings. It’s a huge improvement.

To understand why this is so, we need to look beyond the quick mention of Xbox Music that Microsoft provided during yesterday’s E3 2012 media briefing. At that event, Microsoft provided what it described as a “sneak peek” at the “new” service, which, again, is really just an evolution of the existing service. But an accompanying promotional video plus some information I’ve learned separately from Microsoft should help fill in some—but not all—of the gaps.

First, let’s examine what Microsoft said at E3. During the media briefing, Microsoft head of marketing strategy Yusuf Mehdi noted that Xbox’s entertainment focus wasn’t just about games, it was about movies, TV shows, and music as well. Speaking generally about the Xbox’s entertainment options, he noted that Microsoft doubled the amount of content that was available to Xbox 360 users over the last year, and that the new Bing Search functionality, added in the Fall 2011 Dashboard update, made finding the content you want even easier than before. Demos and evolutionary updates to the Xbox’s video and sports content capabilities then ensued.

Finally, however, Mehdi got to Xbox Music, which is replacing Zune Music.

“You simply can’t talk about entertainment without taking about music, he said. “I’m proud to announce our plans to deliver the music service we’ve always dreamed of building. We call it Xbox Music. And when we launch Xbox Music, we will bring you a world-class library of over 30 million music tracks, and great new ways to share, and discover, and enjoy new music. We’re going to release Xbox Music on Xbox 360, and on Windows 8 PCs, tablets, and phones.”

There’s a lot of information there.

30 million. First, the last figure I’d seen for Zune Music was closer to 20 million tracks, but it’s perhaps not unexpected that this collection has grown, and of course the 30 million figure is aimed at putting Xbox Music at or above the competition. (Amazon MP3, for example, still claims 20 million tracks.)

Share, discover, and enjoy new music. One of the key advantages of Zune Music over rivals is that it has always offered better ways to share and discover music with others. I suspect that Xbox Music will evolve these capabilities. For example, where Zune used Zune Social for sharing years before Apple dropped the leaden Ping on uninterested users, I bet that Xbox Music will share over popular social networking services instead, including Facebook.

Xbox 360, Windows 8 PCs and devices, and Windows Phone 8 only. Where Xbox SmartGlass is a cross-platform play with support for Apple iPads and iPhones and Android-based handsets and tablets in addition to Microsoft’s platforms, Xbox Music, like Zune Music before it, remains tied to Microsoft’s ecosystem only. This is a huge mistake, I think. Microsoft needs to release Xbox Music (and Video) clients for iOS and Android too. I’d be surprised if they didn’t, eventually.

Your music, your way. This is the tagline to the Xbox Music service. Which is interesting, since the tagline for Zune is “your entertainment, everywhere.” Same thing.

A Zune by any other name...

A promotional video then ensued. It was loud and peppy and featured the same overly-white, McMansion-living trendy families that always seem to exist in Microsoft’s promo videos since this is the only life that Microsoft employees in Redmond area understand. But it reveals a few interesting clues about how the Zune Music service will be changing and evolving as it becomes Xbox Music, offering some new features that are exposed in the Xbox Music apps for Windows 8 PCs and tablets and on Windows Phone 8. These include:

Xbox Music for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8. The current Music app in Windows 8 is being rebranded as Xbox Music, so we can assume that the Video app will be rebranded as Xbox Video. Likewise, Music + Videos in Windows Phone will be split into two apps for Windows Phone 8, Xbox Music and Xbox Video, just as in Windows 8.

Xbox Music app changes. Compared to the Music app in the Release Preview version of Windows 8, Xbox Music will include some changes. The current panoramic app includes the groups My Music, Now Playing/Spotlight, New Releases, and Popular, from left to right. But in the video, we can see that Xbox Music also includes additional groups, including a Friends group that shows a list of contacts, or friends. This can be found to the left of the current leftmost group, My Music. (There are also other new groups, like Most Played and Related To; it looks like New Releases is changing to Featured & New.)

New Friends group in Xbox Music

Now Playing improvements. While the current Music app on Windows 8 features a very Zune-like Now Playing screen, the one shown in the video is quite different (and obviously fake, with big Plus and Favorite buttons that don’t currently exist). And when the music is played on the Xbox (using the Play On Xbox functionality in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8), the Now Playing screen is identical. Today, the Xbox also uses a Zune-like Now Playing screen, albeit one that is different than on Windows 8.

Now Playing in the Release Preview version of Music for Windows 8

The coming, new version of Now Playing

Smart DJ. The Zune software on Windows and in Windows Phone supports a feature called Smart DJ that creates “instant mixes,” or dynamic playlists, find songs similar to a seed song in your music collection and, if you have Zune Music Pass, in the entire Zune collection as well. This feature works a lot like the dynamic radio station creation features of services like Spotify, Pandora, and last.FM. It’s not in the current Music app on Windows 8, but it’s coming to Xbox Music.

Smart DJ comes to Xbox Music

Smarter data collection. Zune Music will be smarter about the music you play most often so that the music that’s propagated to the app’s home page will that you play the most frequently. (Currently, you can dive into My Music and then sort by various criteria, but not by “most played.”)

Inline content info, similar to what appears in the Xbox LIVE Games app

Related music. In the concept of finding new music you’ll like, the Xbox Music app will surface music that’s related to music you like.

New, dynamic Related To group in Xbox Music

OK, that’s neat. But there are a few more things I do know about, and I suspect much more we’ll learn in the months ahead. But here are a few more tidbits that Microsoft didn’t discuss.

Xbox Music Pass. The Zune Music Pass service is continuing into the future and past the demise of the Zune brand. I suspect that it will simply be called Xbox Music Pass, though I’ve never been told that explicitly. This service works fine already in the current Windows 8 Music app, though I’d point out that this service is also currently lacking some major features I expect to see in Xbox Music Pass, including cloud-based playlist and smart playlist creation with sync.

DLNA compatibility. In Windows 8 today, you have two options for pushing content from a PC or device to an Xbox 360 or set-top box device: You can use Play On Xbox, which only works with Marketplace-based content (and of course only works with the Xbox 360) or you can use DLNA Play To, which is streaming only (so the PC must be left on) and only works with some devices. New to 2012 and coming in a future Dashboard update, Xbox 360 will get true, seamless DLNA compatibility so you can use it more simply, and outside of the limited Media Center Extender environment. This feature will of course work with both Xbox Music and Xbox Video, providing a way for Windows 8 (and Windows Phone 8) users to stream non-Marketplace content to their Xbox 360 and HDTV with no configuration. (The Xbox will show up in the Devices pane like any other compatible device.)

SkyDrive integration.  As I discussed in Windows Phone 8 Preview, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore revealed that the SkyDrive cloud storage service, which now only supports documents and photos explicitly, will be opened up to music as well. “When I browse into the Music experience, my songs are automatically there, I can just click play without ever having to sync,” he said during a leaked video for Microsoft’s Windows Phone partners at Nokia.

I suspect there’s a lot more to learn. But that will need to wait for the future. Even today, however, there’s a lot of information out there. And it’s pretty clear that Xbox Music is going to pick up the Zune Music mantle and take it to new heights.

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