Microsoft’s Xbox Music Looks Good, As Far As It Goes

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The Zune era is about to come to a definitive end. Microsoft’s new Xbox Music–the service it announced at the E3 conference in June–arrives on the Xbox console on Tuesday and on Windows 8 on the operating system’s debut day, October 26. It’s also due to show up on Windows Phone 8 smartphones soon.

And for Windows 8 early adopters, it looks pretty good. The service will feature ad-supported Spotify-like on-demand streaming of albums and songs to Windows 8 PCs for free, via a “Modern” (formerly Metro) interface which looked nicely-done when Microsoft demoed it to me last week, drawing on the company’s global library of 30 million tracks. There’s a Pandora-style feature called Smart DJ, and iTunes-esque paid MP3 downloads. A $9.99/month Xbox Pass subscription let will you listen on Xbox 360 (and send songs from PC to Xbox via SmartGlass) and stream and download to Windows 8 phones.

Still, when Microsoft executives told me about their plans for Xbox Music, I was struck by how much of them are, for now, just that: plans. These items are scheduled to arrive at unspecified dates in the next year:

  • iOS and Android apps;
  • A web-based client;
  • Social features that let you see what your friends are listening to (at first, all you’ll be able to do is manually push out songs to your social networks, one by one);
  • An iTunes scan-and-match feature which will identify songs in your personal collection and unlock streaming cloud-based versions of them for all your devices.

All of this still-to-come stuff is already widely available in other digital music services. And one thing that apparently isn’t on its way: support for Windows 7, or a desktop-interface version of any sort. The Modern version of Xbox Music will be the only PC edition.

You can certainly argue that it’s smartest for Microsoft to make sure that Xbox Music does relatively few things unusually well, and then add more capabilities later. But at launch, the service, with its focus on Windows 8/Windows Phone 8/Xbox 360, will have a Microsoft-centric emphasis that feels out of whack with the way most people listen to music today. I do look forward to trying it on Windows 8, though–and seeing how quickly Microsoft makes good on its intentions to build out the service.