Xbox Music offers subscription streaming, storage and the ability to purchase tracks. Can it succeed with limited initial platform support?
The interface looks great on Windows 8 tablets, but other platform support is limited.
Digital music fans have never had more options, but the experience is more fragmented than ever. iTunes rules digital downloads, Spotify is the subscription music leader and a slew of other services fill in the variety of remaining niches.
Xbox Music is Microsoft's latest entry in this space, and while it's easy to write it off as another "me too" digital music platform, it's surprisingly comprehensive. Like Spotify, Xbox Music offers free, ad-supported streaming of its subscription music library, plus Pandora-like artist-based internet radio and a premium tier called Xbox Music Pass (with an estimated Australian price of AU$11.99 per month, according to local Xbox reps) that offers ad-free streaming and has "cloud storage" functionality coming soon.
It's a strong initial offering, particularly its combination of subscription streaming, locker storage and music store, which no other service currently offers. In the demos we saw, it's the best of all worlds if you're a subscriber, offering up your own music collection (synced to all supported devices), subscription tracks and the option to buy tracks not available for streaming — provided they're in Xbox Music's catalogue. It's as close as we've seen to a unified music library experience, although Microsoft hasn't specified how much cloud storage comes with Xbox Music Pass. (Xbox Music is also planning to add scan-and-match uploading, ala iTunes Match, in 2013.)
As the provided-by-Microsoft chart shows, the company is quick to tout Xbox Music's wide range of offerings, but it glosses over the service's major weakness — namely, platform support. The chart indicates "PC + Mobile + Home" support, which is technically true; Xbox Music is coming to the Xbox 360 on Tuesday, Windows 8-based tablets and PCs on 26 October, Window Phone 8 "shortly after" and other platforms "at a later date".
Read between the lines, and it means that PC use is restricted not only to Windows PCs, but also to Windows 8 PCs, and there aren't any current plans for Windows 7 or OS X software. That's a significant disadvantage, when Spotify offers desktop software for both Mac and Windows, and most other competitors like Rhapsody, Rdio and MOG work on any operating system with their browser-based software. (And there are reports that Spotify is developing browser-based software, as well.)
Similarly, Xbox Music isn't launching with home-entertainment hardware support, aside from the Xbox 360, whereas services like Spotify are supported by a number of devices, such as the Sonos product line. And the vast majority of Xbox Music functionality on the Xbox 360 requires a paid Gold Live subscription, in addition to the Xbox Music Pass subscription. On the upside, iOS and Android support are on the road map for the coming year, so Xbox Music isn't the Microsoft-only experience that Zune was.
The focus on Windows 8 isn't all bad news for Xbox Music, though. Microsoft is making the Xbox Music app the default music playback in Windows 8, which will expose the service to a new, large audience that may not be familiar with subscription music services. And with the ability to stream a huge library of tracks for free with ads, there's a good chance that many will at least give it a shot.
Xbox Music is a compelling new option in the increasingly crowded digital music space, especially if you're committing to the Windows 8 ecosystem. But if you mix and match your devices, it's a much harder sell until platform support improves, especially for the desktop software.