After six years of supporting a music player and purchase system that virtually nobody embraced, and recently launching a tablet that no one seemed to want, Microsoft appears to be pulling itself together at last. The company has come out swinging following the retirement of the Zune brand. The new Xbox Music service takes aim at both iTunes and Spotify to offer a hybridized venue for both purchasing and streaming, and it will be available across multiple platforms, starting with the Xbox 360 and, so they claim, eventually coming to the iPhone.
"Music is the one avenue we think we can really differentiate this year against the competition," said Xbox Music GM Jerry Johnson, according to The Hollywood Reporter, "[to] really solve the consumer’s problem and introduce something in a powerful way. Music shouldn’t be work. It should be fun.” And your approach to delivering it shouldn't be something so easily made fun of by, say, The Simpsons, Chuck or, God forbid, Donald Glover in a bit about gross penises. Smartly, Johnson willfully put some distance between Xbox Music and Zune.
"The old Zune strategy was to build a device and take that experience over to this client, then over to that client. You couldn’t even create a playlist on the [Xbox 360] console," he said. "It was the wrong approach. The right approach is you create a service, make it extremely rich, and then work with clients to share features and create commonalities from the experience of one device to another. We have this great opportunity with the introduction of Windows 8 to deliver this type of simplified, built-from-the-ground-up, all in one experience."
The service hits the 360 on Tuesday; comes to PC, slate, and tablet after the Windows 8 and Windows RT rollout on October 26; and will hit Windows Phone 8 sometime after that drops on October 29. Android and iOS versions are promised "within a year." Users are offered three tiers of engagement: free streaming with ads, offering access to 18 million songs in the U.S. and 30 million songs overall (not available for mobile); ad-free subscription streaming via a $9.99 monthly Xbox Music Pass or a $99.99 annual fee; and a purchase-to-own option.
"Today we’re announcing we’re going into 22 markets," Johnson added. "That number will continue to grow over this year. It’s hundreds of licensing deals we’re doing globally. We should be the first one to have free streaming of ad-supported content in Canada ... Xbox used to mean gaming. But 18 months ago, it crossed over this mark where people started spending more time doing non-gaming things on a console than they were gaming when they were connected to Xbox Live. Now it represents entertainment across all of Microsoft."
Considering Microsoft's notoriously thorny issues with ease of use and cross-platform compatibility, only time will tell whether that representation is merely a cosmetic usurping of the heavily soiled Zune name, or a true rival to iTunes and Spotify.