Since the Zune era, Microsoft has never been bad at music. No, they were just late to the party. Apple showed up with the best hardware first, and they complemented it with the world’s best music shopping experience. So it didn’t matter when Microsoft did a few things better, like offering limited track sharing and all-you-can-eat music subscriptions, two breakthroughs that are now the foundation of the new wave of music: cloud services like Rdio and Spotify.
With Xbox Music, Microsoft is taking another big swing at the market. Xbox Music is the new Zune. It’s now the cloud-supported music platform for all Microsoft devices.
Their driving mantra? "Music became work, our goal is music is never work." Just as Windows 8 will unify the metro UI across platforms, Xbox Music will bridge the gap between an Xbox, tablet, laptop, and smartphone, offering pay-for-download tracks, paid subscriptions and, most enticingly, totally free, deep-discography listening to what could be the world’s biggest electronic music collection (anticipated to be ~30,000,000 tracks worldwide soon).
"We realized, you still have to create a service that does satisfy different types of music users in the market," program manager Scott Porter tells Co.Design. "There are people who like to own and have file collections. There are people who don’t want to own a file at all. It’s just about access."
So much like Windows has always needed to be iterative for their massive userbase with an "everything to everyone" approach, Xbox Music will scratch every consumer itch—but it does so within the same cloud-supported framework. Buy a track, rent it, or listen to it free* with occasional commercials. Skip it. Download it. Replay it. Stream it. Playlist it. Whatever. At the end of the day, the cloud will figure it all out, and you can play anything you want on demand on any platform. The interface is the interface. The music is the music. Whether you own or rent is just consumer semantics.
Technically, Xbox Music is Zune. The Zune legacy code makes up much of the service, and the Zune catalog transitioned along with it. But the backend is actually not the revolution here. "Xbox Music is really built from a product perspective," Porter explains. "You look at the UI, the interaction—that’s been built from the ground up."
Still, why care about it? Doesn’t iCloud sort of have these capabilities? Can’t Spotify work for free, too? Here’s the one killer use-case scenario showing how Xbox Music works that really got me excited: On your PC, you load Windows 8. You click the Xbox Music app. You search for an artist. You click play to hear their whole discography. That’s the sort of interaction model that would make the Napster era jealous. It couldn’t be easier.
"For competitors like Pandora, the biggest advantage they’ve had is simplicity," Porter acknowledges. "Everybody loves free stuff, and everybody likes it simple."
The big elephant in the room, of course, is social media. While Microsoft will have Xbox Music on all of their platforms in 2012 (and iOS/Android through apps in 2013), they’ve shared no plans to promote tracks to Facebook or Twitter feeds yet. But they aren’t obvious. Microsoft’s unannounced social solution will arrive in 2013, and it won’t look like what we have now, I’m told.
"Most of the way people are sharing music today are not very useful. I love my friends dearly, but they’re not always my music friends," Porter says. "We’re not doing social just for social’s sake."
Xbox Music has just launched on Xbox 360. It will spread to Windows 8 when the new OS is released later this month.
*Xbox Music ad-supported streaming is free on Windows 8 devices, but they will charge on other platforms like smartphones.