These days, all-access streaming music services no longer feel like unlikely magic tricks -- they're a convenient, widely adopted way to listen to music. There's clearly a lot of money to be made in streaming music, and big technology companies aren't going to sit idly by and let upstarts like Rdio and Spotify corner the market. Enter Microsoft and Xbox Music.
Xbox Music is Microsoft's music streaming service. Until now, it's been limited to Microsoft's own hardware -- Windows PCs, Xbox 360s and Windows Phones. Starting today, that's finally changing: Xbox Music is coming to iOS, Android and web browsers.
Xbox Music is similar to Spotify and Rdio in a lot of ways: If you pay a monthly subscription, you can stream unlimited ad-free music, stream on your phone on the go, and download songs for offline play on your devices. You can also stream music without paying a subscription fee, though you'll have to listen to ads, and after six months the service will put a cap put on how many free songs you can stream per month.
The key difference, until now, has been that Xbox Music only works on Microsoft devices. Spotify and Rdio, meanwhile, are more platform agnostic -- they work on Macs and PCs, as well as iOS and Android devices as well as several other home-entertainment products from companies like Boxee, Squeezebox and Onkyo. (Neither Spotify nor Rdio work on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or Wii U natively, though there are some workarounds.)
It's not a small difference. Plenty of people would be happy to pay for a service that streams music to the gaming console in the middle of their entertainment center. But far fewer use Windows Phones, and fewer still are willing to switch to Windows Phones just to use Xbox Music on the go. By releasing iOS, Android and Web clients for the service, Microsoft seems to finally be adapting. Whether they've adapted enough, fast enough, remains to be seen, but at least they're moving in the right direction.
On Friday, I met with Xbox Music general manager Jerry Johnson in Microsoft's (fairly swank) new Xbox Loft in San Francisco's Soma district. The room still under development -- a bunch of stations were set up with large TV screens, stations that Microsoft PR told me would soon be accompanied by Xbox Ones, the better to have press demonstrations and events. Looks like Microsoft is setting up shop in SF in a more permanent way than they have before.
For the time being, there were no Xbox Ones to be seen; I was just there to check out what'll be new with Xbox Music. Here's what I learned, broken down into easy to digest bullet points:
- The subscription for Xbox Music is remaining the same. The service's setup isn't changing. They still have 30 million tunes available, you can still buy songs if you'd like, you can still use the service for free as long as you're willing to listen to ads and know that after six months, your playcount will be limited to 10 hours per month. Subscriptions still cost $US9.99 a month, or $US99 for a year.
- It looks, and works, more or less just like Spotify. I use Spotify instead of Rdio, so that's my point of reference -- and Xbox Music is more or less the same service. Want to save an album? Make a playlist. Want to do a search by artist or genre? Easy. The Xbox Music user interface is a step up from Spotify's - it's generally slicker and seems like it'll be easy to use. But for most intents and purposes, we're talking about the same sort of service.
- "Smart DJ" is being slightly revamped. Xbox Music has always had a "radio" feature like Spotify and its ilk, but it's now actually called radio -- and not "Smart DJ" -- which Microsoft is hoping will make its purpose clearer to users.
- The iOS and Android apps drop today (Monday), though they're incomplete. On Monday the 9th, you'll be able to download an Xbox Music app for your iOS or Android device. They won't be quite as fleshed-out as the Windows Phone version of the app, though. For the time being, both new versions are streaming only, so you can't download music to listen offline. Also, you won't be able to listen to radio, at least at launch. Fortunately, Johnson said that Microsoft is committing to adding both features soon, with radio coming in the next few weeks and offline play coming by the end of the year.
- Free Streaming isn't available on mobile devices. As with comparable services, you can only stream music to your mobile devices if you've got the paid subscription. Free, ad-supported streaming is only available through browsers and through Windows 8.
- There's no Mac version. Mac users can use and listen to Xbox Music through the new web player, but there's no dedicated Mac application for Xbox Music, nor will there be. No surprise there.
- It lacks Spotify's social sensibility. There are some social features built into Xbox Music, but they're nowhere near as integrated as Spotify's Facebook implementation. While you're using Xbox Music in Windows 8, you can share your music by sending playlist links to others. But you can't do that from your iPhone or Droid, and you can't do it from the web player. Generally, the program isn't as social-friendly as Spotify.
- Xbox Music still has a larger library than either Spotify or Rdio. Both Spotify and Rdio advertise having a library of over 20 million songs, while Xbox Music has an advertised library of more than 30 million. Not an insubstantial difference. (These are big numbers, and it can be tough to tell exactly what they mean. My litmus test: All three services allow you to stream my album. Heh.)
- You still can't stream to more than one device at a time. This isn't any different from other streaming services - you can only stream music to one device at a time. If you've downloaded a track for offline play, you can listen on up to four devices on your account, but (just like Spotify), streaming is one-at-a-time.
- The Xbox One and 360 versions won't work offline. The console versions of Xbox Music won't work offline - there's no option to download music for offline play, so Xbox Music is streaming only, even with a paid subscription. It's not clear whether this is tied to the fact that the Xbox One itself was intended to be an always-online console, but while Microsoft may have changed course on the console itself, the music service on the console will be online-only.
- On Xbox One, you'll be able to play games and music at the same time… sort of. It'd be great if you could make a custom Xbox Music playlist before playing a video game, then have the music play in the background while you blow up/have sex with aliens in the game. That hasn't been possible with the Xbox 360 app and still won't be, but it will be possible with Xbox One. Well, sort of. You'll be able to use "Snap Mode" on Xbox One to pull the music player out in a small window, but that's currently the only way to listen to music while playing games. That means that you'll have to leave a part of your screen dedicated to the music player, rather than having the sort of seamless background music that (frankly) I'd expect the Xbox One to be able to do with an application called "Xbox Music." Johnson said that they can only commit to making the Snap Mode player work with games, but that at some point in the future they could possibly come up with a more seamless solution.
- They're working on some cool new ideas. The niftiest thing Johnson described was the kind of thing he says his team up in Washington are working on during self-directed "hack" sessions. With this feature -- which will be added to the Windows 8.1 version of the program -- a user in Windows 8.1 could be browsing the web and come across a list of musicians and albums. With the press of a button, Xbox Music would index the website and make a playlist of all of the albums listed. So, if you were browsing a concert lineup (or an iTunes results page, or whatever), you could instantly make a playlist of all of the artists listed on the page and be listening to them in seconds. Very cool.
- The best version of Xbox Music is still in Windows 8. Or rather, in Windows 8.1, since there'll be a new version of the app launching with the 8.1 version of Windows. The Windows version will get all of the coolest integrated features (like the one I just outlined), as well as the ability to share playlists on social media. The web version will be lacking a few notable features - you can't download songs for offline play, and the social functions won't work.
Microsoft is certainly making Xbox Music more appealing to non-Windows/Windows Phone users, and while the service certainly works best on Microsoft devices, it's nice to see them adapting to the fact that users want their streaming services to be available on any device of any brand.
I'll be trying out the iOS version of Xbox Music over the next few weeks, and we'll see how it stacks up against Spotify, which is currently my go-to music streaming service. My sense is that it won't quite be a Spotify replacement yet, but if Microsoft continues to flesh out their service and adds radio and offline downloads, Spotify (and Rdio) could be in for a fight.