Last year, I wrote a free e-book called "Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music" that I used as a sort of proof-of-concept for task-based books, a format I later used for "Paul Thurrott's Windows Phone 8" and am using now for "Windows 8.1 Book." Since then, Xbox Music has exploded with different mobile app and web versions, and in prepping an update to the book, it occurred to me: Why not just change everything?
Only a writer would torture himself in such a way.
But here's my thinking. When I started the book last year, it was about using Xbox Music on Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Xbox 360, three platforms on which the Xbox Music user experience was (still is) completely different. So it made sense to sort of separate out the discussion between general topics and then address each platform separately. It was workable, anyway.
Today, Xbox Music is available on far more platforms—Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8, Xbox 360, Xbox One, the web, iOS (iPhone/iPod touch) and Android (handsets and tablets)—and while there are still some big differences in the experiences, many of them are quite similar. And my expectation is that these similarities will increase over time.
So rather than continually adding sections for Xbox Music on each new platform, I thought: Why make this book a centralized list of tasks that is platform agnostic? Within each task, I can explain to which platforms it applies, and point out the differences where applicable. More specifically, I won't need to write a different "playlists" section for every single supported platform. I can just write one playlists section.
This is interesting enough to me that I'm doing it. But it's enough work that I'm already very unhappy about it. Again, that's what it's like to be a writer. It's best to just accept things and move on.
Before switching to this format, I was working on what would have been "Paul Thurrott's Xbox Music" version 1.8. (The current version, 1.7, is available here.) It was going to add information about the Windows 8.1, iOS and Android, and Xbox One versions of Xbox Music. Big update, no matter how you slice it.
But now that I have a new format I really like, I'm thinking of this as version 2.0. And when it's done, I'll see about getting it published to Kindle and Nook too. I'm also working on a major update to "Paul Thurrott's Windows Phone 8," and of course "Windows 8.1 Book" is an ongoing, basically daily concern. So ... not sure on the timing.
But rather than publish PDF/whatever versions of what I've done so far, here instead is a web-based look at the introductory stuff, which was of course adapted from the previous versions of the book. It changes some terminology to keep up with Microsoft's evolving usage ("cloud collection" is now just "collection," and so on), and of course explicitly discusses each supported platform.
We live in interesting times.
The days of ripping audio CDs and maintaining digital music collections on a single PC and then syncing that music, manually and tediously, with devices is over. Today, our data lives in the cloud. And the once-proud PC, while still an important component of our digital lifestyles, sits on the periphery with other devices—smart phones, tablets, and hybrid PCs—accessing our cloud-hosted content in the same manner as any other device.
Critics will tell you that cloud computing is a fad, a temporary blip, and that we'll all go racing back to locally-stored data because of concerns about the cost, availability or reliability of broadband Internet access. This is incorrect, and this kind of thinking betrays a key misunderstanding about cloud computing. In this new model, we aren't always online accessing live data. Instead, we sync data to our devices so that it can be accessed, when necessary, even when the devices are offline.
In the case of cloud-based music services, you can continue to store your entire music collection on your PC or other devices, if you wish. But the master copy of that collection is in the cloud. And as you add, modify and delete playlists, purchase or subscribe to new music, and perform other actions against your collection, the changes happen in the cloud and are synced to all of your devices.
Today, there are many cloud-based music services that make it easy to discover, manage and listen to music. Apple's iTunes set the standard for a la carte music purchasing, where you buy individual songs or albums from an online store and then sync them to devices. Services like Pandora provide free (with ads) and paid (with no ads) radio-like streaming functionality. Subscription services such as Rhapsody and Spotify allow you to stream and download songs from an online collection with millions of songs. And music locker services like Amazon Cloud Player and Google Music let you store and play your own music in their online storage, utilizing a music matching functionality to minimize the amount of uploading you must do.
It's all very useful and valuable. But because all of this functionality is spread out across multiple services, it's also very difficult to manage, with each service requiring a different account and different apps, some of which don't work on the devices you actually use.
If only there were a better way.
Xbox Music is Microsoft's attempt at that better way. The firm describes it as the world's first all-in-one digital music service, combining all the features described above, and more, into a single service accessed via a single account and available on all of the PCs and other devices you actually use, including iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android handsets and tablets, Windows Phone handsets, Windows 8.x/RT tablets, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and the web. For the first time, you don't need to join multiple services to meet all your music needs, and you don't need to jump from service to service on your PCs and devices to enjoy the music you want to listen to, wherever you are and whatever the situation is.
This book covers everything that Xbox Music has to offer, across all of these device types, though it focuses on the most recent versions of the Xbox Music app on each platform. So for Windows, that is Xbox Music for Windows 8.1 (including Windows RT 8.1), not Xbox Music for Windows 8.
Xbox Music features
Xbox Music combines free-streaming radio, music subscription services and music purchasing options, and is focused on simplifying the acts of finding, managing and listening to music across your various devices, including Windows-based PCs, tablets, and all other popular modern devices. But there is one downside: The availability of Xbox Music services varies by device, and can require one or more subscription services, again depending on device.
If you are serious about using Xbox Music, I strongly recommend subscribing to the Xbox Music Pass, which is described below. This excellent and affordable service lights up all Xbox Music features on Windows 8.1, Windows Phone, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, Android handsets and tablets, iPhones, iPod touch and iPad, and the web, providing the best-possible experience. So while I do assume that you have subscribed to Xbox Music Pass in this book, I will explain what happens when you do not, as needed.
If you are interested in using Xbox Music on Xbox 360 or Xbox One, an Xbox LIVE Gold subscription is also required, and this time it's not optional. This service costs $59.99 per year in the US and enables a variety of other services as well. Since Xbox Live Gold is a requirement on Xbox, I will obviously assume you have an active subscription when discussing Xbox Music functionality on Microsoft's consoles.
With Xbox Music your music collection is stored in the cloud, and not just on an individual PC. 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 PCs and devices. With Xbox Music (and, for many device types, an Xbox Music Pass subscription), you store all of your music in your cloud-based collection, which will then be accessible from all of your compatible PCs and 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 allows users to listen to individual songs or full albums for free, even if they don't pay for an Xbox Music Pass subscription.
As you might expect, free music streaming comes with some significant caveats. These include:
Windows 8.x and web only. Free streaming is available only to users running Windows 8.x (meaning Windows 8/8.1 and Windows RT/RT 8.1) and Xbox Music for web.
Microsoft account required. You must sign-in to Windows—or to the Xbox Music app specifically—with a Microsoft account. (The Xbox Music app for Windows 8.1 lets you stream 15 songs for free before requiring you do so, however.)
Internet required. You must be online in order to stream music because nothing is downloaded to the PC. (Those with Xbox Music Pass subscriptions can download music from Xbox Music Store on Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8 for offline usage.)
Advertising supported. While the streaming of the Xbox Music catalog is indeed free, the service is ad-supported. So you will occasionally hear short audio ads, similar to what you might hear on the radio or a podcast. (These ads will not appear if you have an Xbox Music Pass.)
Unlimited playback for six months only. While the Xbox Music free streaming capability is unlimited for the first 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.
It's not the entire catalog. While much of the Xbox Music catalog is available for streaming, not all of it is. For example, you cannot stream music from groups that disallow it, including Led Zeppelin.
Only some items can be streamed. Xbox Music lets you stream songs, albums, or radio stations, but not genres.
It's better with Xbox Music Pass. As with many Xbox Music features, free streaming is improved with an Xbox Music Pass. On Xbox Music for Windows 8.1 and Xbox Music for web, it enables unlimited ad-free playback, for example, as well as providing music streaming functionality on Windows Phone 8, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, iOS (iPhone, iPod touch and iPad) and Android. Additionally, those who subscribe to Xbox Music Pass can download music from the Xbox Music catalog for offline use on Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone 8.
Not available in all markets. While free music streaming (and Xbox Music Pass streaming and downloading) provides access to a huge catalog of over 30 million tracks, this functionality is not all available in every market served by Xbox Music. Check with Xbox Music in your locale for details.
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, though those with Xbox Music Pass subscriptions may find that the need to actually buy music has essentially disappeared.
Playlists are lists of songs that can be played together as a group, like the modern version of a mix tape. They're a way for to organize songs you like, or that go together well, in a cohesive, way, much like a traditional radio. 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. That latter feature is a huge benefit of Xbox Music.
Note: Previous Microsoft digital music platforms supported two kinds of playlists: Basic, or static, playlists—simply called playlists—and dynamic playlists called auto playlists that were automatically populated using certain criteria. Dynamic playlists are very powerful, and their contents can change over time as new music matching the criteria is added (or removed) from your music collection over time. Alas, Xbox Music does not currently support dynamic playlists. Instead, it only supports basic playlists.
As noted previously, any playlists you create in Xbox Music are automatically synced to your cloud-based collection so they're available from all your devices. But 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—still called by its previous name Smart DJ in Windows Phone and Xbox 360—helps you create a special kind of dynamic playlist, called a radio station (formerly a Smart DJ mix), which is based on "seed" music and includes content from your collection and, depending on the situation, from the voluminous Xbox Music Store library. For example, if you have an Xbox Music Pass subscription, radio stations created on each platform will include music from the Xbox Music cloud-based library.
Radio creates dynamic playlists called radio stations, which are like Internet-based radio stations that you don't have to manually curate and manage. And in doing so, it helps you discover new music by choosing songs that are based on music you already like. Radio stations also support unlimited skipping. So if you're used to the free version of the Pandora, service, for example, you know that free, competing radio-like services do not allow this.
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.x. It supports the following features:
Manual album match. You can manually match individual albums one-by-one to the Xbox Music Store library. If the album is found in Xbox Music, it is added to your collection and made available for streaming or download on your other devices.
Automatic music match. 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.
Music match currently works somewhat like Amazon Cloud Player, Google Play Music, or Apple iTunes Match in that music matched from your own personal collection is stored in the cloud, and no uploading is required. 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
Xbox Music Pass is a monthly (or annual) subscription service that lets you stream much of the music in Microsoft's voluminous online music catalog with your PCs and devices. And on Windows 8/x/RT and Windows Phone 8, you can also download music from the service to your devices for offline use.
Xbox Music Pass is comparable to services like Spotify Premium or Rhapsody Premier Plus in that it provides unlimited monthly streaming on compatible devices, lets you download music for offline use on a set number of devices, comes with no advertising of any kind, and integrates with other platform features that help you discover new music, like Radio.
It's a reasonable expense for music lovers: Xbox Music Pass costs $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, which is like getting two months free per year. (And if you're not sure if you want Xbox Music Pass, Microsoft offers a free 30-day trial so you can see how the service works with your own devices.)
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. This can include any combination of Windows 8.x PCs, Windows RT devices, and Windows Phone 8 handsets. Your Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS and Android devices do not count against your device list, nor does using Xbox Music for web, since none of these support music downloading or offline playback.
While Microsoft touts its huge catalog of over 30 million tracks, not all available for streaming or in every market: In the United States there are roughly 20 million tracks available for streaming. And some major acts have opted out of streaming. For example, while Xbox Music offers Led Zeppelin's music for purchase, it cannot be used with Xbox Music Pass.
Xbox SmartGlass, Play on Xbox and Play To
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 Play on Xbox, which requires separate mobile apps called Xbox SmartGlass and Xbox One SmartGlass on Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8, iOS (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad) and Android.
Play on Xbox allows you to redirect the playback of music content from your PC, device, or Windows Phone 8 handset to Xbox 360 (and, presumably, one day the Xbox One), so that playback continues only on the latter. As with many Xbox Music features, it only works with content that can be found in the Xbox Music Store, and that content must be licensed for streaming. (Most of it is.)
Once the music begins playing on the Xbox, you can continue to control playback, and learn more about the music you're listening to, using a SmartGlass app on your device. So in this sense, Xbox SmartGlass and Xbox One SmartGlass let your device function like a large and intelligent remote control.
You can also use the Play To functionality in Windows 8.1 to stream music from your PC or device to an Xbox console. This, too, is not strictly an Xbox Music feature but it does provide a nice degree of integration between various Xbox Music devices.
Beyond this, I have some rough ideas for the high-level topics, which I'll adapt from both the previous version of the book and from the Xbox Music chapter in "Windows 8.1 Book," while adding material for each supported platform. Something like...
Get Xbox Music for your device
Sign in with your Microsoft account
Xbox Music app tours
Navigate your collection
Display music that is only found on this device
Find music with Search
Explore an artist
Add music from Xbox Music Store to your collection
Control music playback
Understand and use the Now Playing view
Listen to music while the device is offline
View and edit music properties
Import and manage your own music
Match your own music to Xbox Music
Create a playlist
Add music to a playlist
Create a radio station
Pin favorite music
Enjoy music videos
Manage your Xbox Music account and devices
This is perhaps not in the right order. Each section will need some form of "Applies to: Windows 8.x/RT, Windows Phone, iOS, Android, web" –type annotation. I'll play with it.
Feedback is appreciated. But if you're wondering why Xbox Music, think of it this way: This is a topic that is somewhat manageable from a writing standpoint and is ideal in the sense that it's a service that is available on multiple device types and platforms. I suspect getting this approach to work here will help with future cross-platform books, whatever they may be: Outlook.com, Office 365 Home Premium, or whatever. So I'm curious to see how it comes together.