Xbox Music launched today on Xbox 360. The streaming music service is similar to Spotify in functionality and pricing ($10 a month for premium service). Later this month it will expand onto Windows 8, and the service will find its way onto Windows Phone 8 shortly after the platform's expected launch in early November.
You may notice that there are a few key operating systems missing from that list. That's wrong, and only one problem with what could be a promising service and will at least be another addition to the crowded streaming music space. To be fair, Xbox Music gets a few things right. Here's a bit of both.
Right: Windows 8 and RT see free, ad-supported streaming, so Xbox Music wins on tablets.
We are all familiar with the Spotify rub. Desktop, ad-supported streaming is free, but with no Web app — and mobile apps largely stuck behind a pay-wall — Pandora retains a reason to exist, giving Spotify Free users access to streaming music on the go. While Xbox Music has a pay-wall as well, it is only required to be paid on Windows Phone 8 and Xbox 360, meaning that of any service on any tablet operating system, Xbox Music on Windows 8 and RT is the best value. Considering tablets are the fastest growing market in the hardware side of the industry, this is a big victory for Redmond
Wrong: Xbox 360 users get walled off.
Xbox 360 users must be an Xbox Live Gold subscriber ($60) in order to access Xbox Music. Thirty day trial aside, users must then subscribe to Xbox Music ($10 per month or $100 a year) in order to access the service. That's right, there is no ad-supported or free service on the Xbox 360. So in order to use Xbox Music on the device that gave the service its name, subscribers must spend, at a minimum, $160 a year. Ready for the kicker? Xbox Music will not play in the background. So no, you can't play games and music at the same time, like users have been able to do since 2005 with HDD-installed music. While there may be a demonstrable excuse for this restriction when playing online multiplayer games, the excuse evaporates when I just want to listen to smooth jazz and slay dragons in Skyrim.
Right: The feature list largely matches the big boys.
Okay, Spotify is a penny cheaper a month, but as it turns out, that isn't such a big deal. Xbox Music offers comparable value to the green monster. Your Xbox Music subscription gives you access to unlimited, ad-free listening. Building your own playlists is included, as is offline caching of playlists on phones and PCs. A matching feature similar to iTunes Match will be on board, and cloud-saved tracks akin to Amazon Cloud Player will come down the line. On bit-rate, the decision is split, but we are giving the nod to Spotify. Xbox Music streaming is locked to 192kbps for the free and paid service, while Spotify Free clocks in at 160kbps and Premium races ahead to 320 kbps. As music connoisseurs become more and more enticed by the ease of use that streaming services provide, this advantage could be critical with a minority of incredibly vocal users.
Wrong: The list of unsupported platforms is too long for a headline.
No seriously, check this out: with options like iOS (phone or tablet), OS X, Android (phone or tablet), BlackBerry (7 or 10), and even a native Web app. Microsoft has committed only to iOS, Android and a Web app, citing launch within one year. Wait, there's even more wrong, as Microsoft's own Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 will see a muddled release of the service through the legacy Zune software, a brand that will die everywhere else. The service formerly known as Zune Pass is now known as the Xbox Music Pass. Also, nifty cloud syncing features like playlists and offline caching will not make the journey to any operating system that ends in 7. Zune Pass users that were happy to receiving ten free songs of their choice at the end of each month will also see that benefit evaporate as they are rolled into Xbox Music. The one positive note for Zune Pass converts is the $5 dollar cheapening of their monthly subscription cost.
Wrong: Zune's excellent podcast library is gone
In a move that's difficult to comprehend, Xbox Music is axing Zune's wonderfully simple support of podcasts. Before, on Windows or Windows Phone 7 podcasts could be subscribed to and automatically downloaded on release with no third party client required. Microsoft is tossing a bone to the development community here. Someone, please make an excellent podcasting app for the new operating systems.