TECH
10/15/2012 07:35 pm ET

Xbox Music vs. Spotify, iTunes, Etc.: Does Microsoft Have The Firepower And Features To Unseat The Kings?

Microsoft on Monday morning officially unveiled a promising new music service for PCs, tablets, laptops and the Xbox gaming console called Xbox Music. And in the grand tradition of late-night games of Risk, it appears to be taking on competitors from every direction possible.

With Xbox Music, Microsoft has rolled the dice and attacked -- all at once, cannons blazing, horses whinnying! -- all-you-can-eat streaming services like Spotify and Rdio, music recommendation services like Pandora, paid music download services like iTunes, and cloud locker services like Google Music and Amazon Cloud Drive.

It's an effort, Microsoft spokespeople have declared, to create the first truly all-in-one music service on the planet. Check out this chart, which Microsoft cooked up to show just exactly what they're attempting to accomplish:

xbox music

That's a seductive bit of PR -- everything I could ever want from a music service, in one place! -- but is there substance behind the claim? Has Microsoft rolled enough sixes that you should consider switching from your current provider of jams, tunes, anthems and canticles in favor of Xbox Music?

WHAT IS XBOX MUSIC?

Xbox Music is, at its heart, an application that will be available on PC, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone smartphones and tablets, and the Xbox, which tries to provide four music-related services:

First, it's like Spotify or Rdio: Xbox Music is an application that provides access to more than 30 million songs, which anyone with a free account can listen to on-demand. If you don't want to pay, you can stream your music on the PC for free and hear ads as you listen. For a standard $9.99 per month, or $99 per year, you can get rid of those ads and also listen to those songs on your mobile devices and Xbox.

Second, Xbox Music is like iTunes: If you like a song or album that you've been streaming for free, Microsoft provides an MP3 store where you can purchase those tracks and download them to your computer, so that you own them and can play them on any number of different music players. That's a function you won't find on Spotify or Rdio, just as you wouldn't find all-you-can-stream music on iTunes.

Third, Xbox Music is like Pandora: Pressing a "Smart DJ" button while listening to any song will launch a Pandora-like feature that plays tracks similar to the artist you're enjoying.

Fourth, Xbox Music is like Google Music: You can sync all the music you already own on your PC into the music player, and -- if you pay the $9.99 per month for the service -- you can play that music on any other device, whether or not it's in the Xbox Music catalogue. This is also similar to the recently-launched iTunes Match from Apple, which can stream your entire music library to any device you own for $25 per year.

It doesn't take five eyes to see that there's a lot going on inside Xbox Music. It's an ambitious service pulling in a lot of different features from a lot of different extant applications in the hopes of killing all of them at once.

Microsoft has shot four bullets from one gun. Will it hit any of its targets and catch on with the general public?

CAUSE FOR X(BOX)CITEMENT

The most titillating aspect of Xbox Music -- if one can truly be titillated by a long-gestating music service from an enormous corporation -- is the combination of Spotify-style streaming and Google Music-style cloud storage. It's something that Apple has been rumored to be pursuing for years, but which Microsoft has finally made real: The music you own, regardless of where you downloaded it, and the music you discover through an unlimited streaming service, are coming together in a meaningful way for the first time.

You are essentially getting -- with some hyperbole -- all the music you could ever want to listen to without having to switch apps or websites.

For Windows 8 users, Windows Phone 8 buyers and Xbox 360 owners, the Xbox Music service will be effortlessly integrated closely into the device. Xbox Music also presents a much cleaner and more attractive design than we've seen from Spotify, Rdio, iTunes, or Amazon, eliminating the mundane grid style of music discovery familiar to users of iTunes or Spotify.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

While Xbox Music sounds great for the Microsoft crowd, there are still many uncertainties for those that haven't unified all of their devices under the Windows flag; in fact, Xbox Music might as well be called "Xbox Music?" for all the questions about it we still need answered.

Android and iOS apps for Xbox Music are coming next year, according to a Microsoft press release; ditto for a version for Mac. The cloud locker feature -- which allows you to listen to your library on any device -- won't be ready until 2013. Social integration, which, on Spotify, allows you to post tracks to Twitter and send songs and playlists to Facebook friends, are also scheduled for -- you guessed it! -- next year.

We are months away, then, from truly being able to evaluate Xbox Music. The number of people who will own a Windows 8 PC and Windows Phone 8 smartphone is likely far, far smaller than the market Microsoft is aiming for.

There's an even larger problem facing Xbox Music than the current absence of support for Mac, Android, or iOS. Most Spotify and Rdio users are likely too entrenched in the service to switch everything up, and Xbox Music doesn't seem to offer the killer feature or function to cause a sea change. Spotify, for instance, already has a "Smart DJ" function in Spotify Radio, which works with not only artists, but also songs, playlists, and albums; if you like a song on Spotify and want to buy it, opening up iTunes or Amazon isn't so difficult that millions were clamoring for an alternative that could provide a buying option with one click.(Streaming services like Spotify also make purchasing digital music somewhat redundant, too).

Microsoft might be more successful with those that have not yet tried Spotify, Rdio, or any of the addictive alternatives. Because it will come preinstalled on Windows 8 devices -- which will sell in the tens of millions over the coming year -- Microsoft might be able to expose an entire horde of new users to all-you-can-eat streaming and get them hooked on its service first. In that scenario, Microsoft will enjoy a special advantage over its foes, whose applications users will have to seek out and download in order to start listening. Xbox Music will be right there on the Start screen upon first bootup, ready to crank out some Animal Collective or Alan Jackson.

X MARKS SOME SPOTS

Xbox Music is an impressive, audacious offering from Microsoft, finally combining into a single package the four primary ways people listen to music on their devices. And though that's an attractive, alluring package for Microsoft devotees and Windows 8-purchasing newcomers to streaming services, it seems unlikely to deliver enough oomph to cause current listeners to renounce their favored services.

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