Microsoft launches Xbox Music: What you need to know

What about iOS, Android, Windows 7, and Mac OS?

Microsoft promises that iOS and Android versions of Xbox Music are on the way. Officially, the timeframe is “within the first year,” but unofficially, Microsoft is aiming to make them available quickly.

Support for other systems is a little fuzzy. Part of that “within the first year, but really pretty soon” plan is to have a Web-based client that will work on any platform; this is how music fans with Macs or previous versions of Windows would be serviced. The idea is worrisome, as Web clients often have significant limitations (such as no access to local files), but we have no details on Microsoft’s plans in this area.

Scan and Match is included, Lockers are coming soon

Though we didn’t see the feature in action, Xbox Music will have the ability to scan your local system for music files that you own, match them to the store, and then mark them as “owned” for streaming to other devices, as long as they’re available as streaming-capable songs in the service. In this way, it’s similar to iTunes Match and Amazon Cloud Player. On a Windows 8 PC, Scan and Match will find all the music in your My Music folder (including DRM-free iTunes AAC files, which the software can play just fine), and then you can see all those files on your other devices and choose to stream or download them. On the Xbox 360, you'll have only the option to stream, but nearly all your music will at least be available.

What about songs on your system that aren’t matched, such as live recordings or strange albums that aren’t in Microsoft’s database? Microsoft promises the ability to upload those tracks to a Locker as part of a future update, but the option won’t be available at launch.

Compression is 192-kbps WMA or 256-kbps MP3

If you’re streaming music from the cloud, or downloading songs as part of your Music Pass subscription, the files will be in WMA format, encoded at 192 kbps. Tracks that you purchase and download will be DRM-free 256-kbps MP3s. No other quality options are available.

It’s progressive downloads, not streaming

When you stream music, you don’t really stream it. The service actually starts a progressive download of the current song, even starting to download the following song, while playing it immediately. In theory, this approach will make the service far more tolerant of brief losses of connectivity.

There’s no social integration yet

If you're hoping for direct integration with Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking, you'll have to hold on for a while: At launch, Xbox Music will have no integration with social networks. (You can, of course, use the Share charm on Windows 8 to link to things, but the Xbox Music service itself doesn't integrate directly with any social network.) You'll have no way to collaborate on a playlist with friends or automatically see what your friends are listening to. Microsoft promises social features in a future update, but we have no details about what those features will be or how they'll work.

Playlists sync across devices, but you can't share them on social networks yet.

One-hit wonder, or greatest hits?

It’s too early to say how Xbox Music will fare. Right out of the gate, its reach will be quite limited. Sure, there are tens of millions of Xbox 360 owners, but getting the most from Xbox Music requires using it on a PC or mobile device. Initially, access will be restricted to those who upgrade to Windows 8 or buy a new Windows 8 PC, or who jump on board the Windows Phone 8 bandwagon. Those people with Windows 7 PCs or Windows Phone 7 handsets can use existing Zune software and access the same music library, but all the new features won’t work.

For those who will buy a Windows 8 device or upgrade their Windows OS, Xbox Music has a serious advantage. It puts a strong music-streaming service—with both subscription and ad-supported options and a music-purchasing store, combined with multidevice cloud syncing—all right into your device, with no app downloading or additional sign-ups necessary. The reach of Windows 8 alone means tens of millions of potential customers, but in the short term, Windows 8 by itself doesn't constitute a big enough market.

Microsoft recognizes that the world is a lot bigger than just those people who immediately upgrade to the latest Microsoft gear. It knows that there are hundreds of millions of iPhone and Android users who aren’t going to jump ship anytime soon, as well as computer users who won’t (or can’t) upgrade to Windows 8 or who prefer the Mac. The decision to limit the Xbox Music launch to the Windows 8 ecosystem was based on a practical consideration—it’s what the company had to focus on to deliver high quality in time for the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 launch. Nonetheless, competing services such as Spotify, Rdio, and iTunes all have native Windows and Mac software, and most will run on multiple mobile platforms (iTunes excepted, of course).

If Microsoft hopes to shake off its Zune history and make Xbox Music a huge hit, it needs to enable broad support outside Microsoft’s own ecosystem, even extending beyond computers and mobile devices to media-streaming products and the like. If Microsoft can continue to add value to Xbox Music while drastically extending its reach, it could be the music service to beat.

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