Will Xbox Music Finally Give Microsoft the Competitive Edge Over Apple’s iTunes?

By Carolyn Heneghan

Ever since the Zune – Microsoft’s long-lost music-endeavor-meets-epic-fail – the company has scrambled to enter the music market with a product as widely and brazenly beloved as anything Apple, Pandora, or Spotify have offered. Microsoft still feels that those companies must surely be lonely at the top, and have unleashed their latest attempt to bolster their performance in the music arena. Announced at this year’s E3 gaming expo, Xbox Music would be the company’s face-saving all-in-one music player, store, and streaming service.

Wielding the power of some of its most renowned and extensively used brands—Windows and the Xbox—Microsoft has unveiled this new digital music service that aims to compete with, or even top, the number of users and catalog breadth that iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify currently enjoy. Debuting on the Xbox console on October 16, the service combines a few elements from these current top players and streaming services, and the creators state that the purpose of the new service is to take the work out of discovering and listening to music.

To begin with, Xbox Music will offer unlimited streaming access to a global catalog of around 30 million songs, which users can listen to for free on any computer or device running the latest version of Windows. It is the default player for Windows 8, which will be released today, October 26th.

Though initially Microsoft will not limit how much music can be streamed, like with any new service looking to first bait its new slew of users, this may change in the future. You, of course, can also pay to download these songs from the Xbox Music Store and listen to them offline whenever you wish. An Xbox Music Pass for $9.99 also allows users to stream their collection and playlists to their Xbox 360 and Windows phone, ad-free.

Finding music is as easy as typing in the name of an artist, song, or album, akin to Pandora. Buying music is as simple as a few clicks in the Xbox Music Store, a la iTunes. And all of these 30 million songs are available for free streaming anywhere, anytime, just like Spotfiy. The Smart DJ feature is a new take on artist-based Internet radio and is a quick, interactive way to discover new music, personalize your collection, and create playlists by launching mixes based on your selected artists—playlists you skip through an unlimited amount of times.

As most of these features are adapted from existing music player models, Xbox Music’s most compelling feature is actually the depth of integration via its Cloud-based service. Not only are your Smart DJ playlists, songs, albums, mixes, and radio stations stored and backed up in the Cloud, but the complete collection is also available for streaming or playing on any Microsoft device for free within minutes of powering on the device for the first time.

Employing the cross-promotion of other product releases, Microsoft likely believes that this will boost sales for not only Xbox Music but for the new operating systems for Windows 8 and Windows Phone as well as its first Microsoft-designed computer, the Surface tablet device. How this strategy will play out remains to be seen, but as I see it, there are a few different outcomes that Microsoft will enjoy—or regret:

  • Success: User-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing, and boasting relative ease of purchasing power, Xbox Music stands all on its own, basking in its own, worthy successes. Somehow, they’ve managed to figure out and deliver the consumer’s needs better than Apple, Pandora, or Spotify ever has, and both new and returning users flock to the new service.
  • Success: The integration of services, devices, and marketing strategies completely pays off, and Xbox Music, along with its other Microsoft-branded cohorts, will enjoy more than modest earnings and a monstrous fandom pining for more.
  • Fail: The interface, usability, and accessibility of Xbox Musix player, streaming, and storefront will flounder and utterly disappoint its potential audience. They’ll ultimately return to iTunes/Pandora/Spotify vowing to never again give Microsoft’s music attempts the chance at success the company so desperately desires.
  • Fail: iTunes/Pandora/Spotify users—even those that are fans of Microsoft products and services—will not see the point in or want to go through the hassle of transferring their now mammoth music libraries into another player, purchasing service, or even file format.

Regardless of how Microsoft’s latest foray turns out, one point remains absolutely clear: in the minds of consumers and CEOs alike, music players, catalogs, and streaming services are absolutely crucial to the core experience of and success in the multimedia sector. Without wide access to artists and discographies, easily operated players, or accessible stores, these companies’ services and devices will inevitably fail over the course of time. Tech trends are nothing unfamiliar to the consumer masses, and without a strong foothold in the towering music industry, you’ll be nothing more than last week’s sputtering hashtag.