Digital Top Stories

Microsoft to unveil latest attempt at music service today

By | Published on Monday 15 October 2012


Microsoft will today unveil its all new music service, the IT giant’s latest effort to get a slice of the digital content market. And, as previously reported, the new platform will sit under the Xbox brand, rather than the Zune label, used by the company for its music ventures since 2006.

The big innovation for Microsoft with Xbox Music is that it will include a streaming service operating pretty much on the Spotify model, with an ad-funded freemium option, as well as a ten dollars a month ad-free subscription package that will also work with Xbox consoles and Windows smartphones.

The streaming service will be added to the download store previously operated by Microsoft under the Zune banner, though with a scan-and-match digital locker function included too, so that users of the Xbox streaming service will also be able to access any tracks in their MP3 collections not in the Microsoft songs catalogue via devices connected to the Xbox network.

This is Microsoft’s third big attempt at digital music. It originally offered downloads via its MSN platform, using the firm’s proprietary WMA file format complete with its PlaysForSure digital rights management technology, which was also used by most of the other early legit download stores. But, of course, WMA files didn’t work on the market-leader iPod, which could only play the DRMed AAC files provided by iTunes, or the MP3s offered by some independent download stores, but mainly, at that time, unlicensed file-sharing networks.

As MP3 (or AAC in the case of iTunes) became the default file-format for the emerging digital music market, Microsoft rebooted its efforts with the launch of Zune, a move into hardware as well as software, and a totally new content platform (so much so Zune players didn’t support DRMed music previously bought via MSN).

Despite some positive reviews for both the Zune hardware and accompanying Marketplace, neither really took off, even after the major labels finally dropped their demand for DRM, allowing Microsoft to sell all its music in the consumer-friendly MP3 format. Apple continued to dominate, while Amazon emerged as the second player in downloads, and new competition from YouTube and the streaming audio services pushed Microsoft further down the list of music providers, even in the US where Zune was most prominently marketed (the Zune devices were never sold beyond North America).

Xbox Music is another total relaunch, a year in the making, and benefiting from having former Universal Music exec Christina Calio leading on label relations. The big innovation, of course, is the addition of streaming, though Microsoft is likely to push the fact that its new music platform is the first from a major player to combine all the elements of digital music – downloads, digital locker, streaming and curated content.

Though another possibly more important change is that while Zune always seemed like a side project for Microsoft, Xbox Music will be a core service, its launch being carefully timed with the big marketing push around the new Windows operating system. And while Zune’s global expansion was slow, and only ever reached eight territories, Xbox Music will be available in 22 markets from launch.

That Xbox Music is so tightly linked to Windows-powered devices is, of course, a major weakness, though versions compatible with both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating system are planned for 2013, and that is when the true potential of Microsoft’s third music service will really be tested.

According to Billboard, the new platform will launch on Xbox consoles tomorrow, Windows-powered PCs and tablets on 26 Oct, and on Windows smart phones shortly after that.