When it launched last year, Xbox Music was trapped in a Microsoft-only bubble. Starting today, Xbox Music will expand its reach to hundreds of millions of mobile users with Android and iOS apps. And that's just a piece of the update it's getting leading up to the new app for Xbox One. Here's what you can expect from the service on your computer, your phone, and the new console.
The Xbox Music story so far
Until now, Xbox Music has been available in an ad-supported version in Windows 8's native Music app. A $US10 monthly/$100 yearly subscription to Xbox Music Pass gets you ad-free access to a 30-million track catalogue through the app as well as through clients for Xbox and Windows Phone. This summer, Xbox Music got a web app, granting access to users people who aren't on Windows 8. Suddenly Mac users got the product, but the experience remains pretty barebones. It doesn't, for example, yet have the "Smart DJ" (artist-based radio) available on Xbox and Windows.
Web access goes freemium and adds new features
Starting today, the web-based version of Xbox Music will be available in a free ad-supported version identical to what you get in the Windows 8.1 app. More importantly (maybe), it's going to be a better product in your browser. The current sad-looking sidebar will be full now, populated by a listing of playlists as well as links to "Radio" and "Explore" features. The former is just a snazzier version of the Smart DJ feature from before, while the latter is a link to a music store where you can buy downloads. In short: Full features, even if you don't use Microsoft.
Apps for Android and iOS
A year after launch, Xbox Music will finally be available on mobile to iOS and Android users who were excluded when Microsoft foolishly launched with just Windows Phone as its only mobile platform. This was more overdue than you'd think. Xbox Music general manager Jerry Johnson told me the service actually enrolls most of its paying subscribers from the troves upon troves of Xbox 360 owners. Unfortunately, when it comes to mobile, Android and iOS have the numbers, which means a lot of unhappy users who don't have the access they expect on their phone. Without mobile access, it's easy to imagine getting fed up with Xbox Music and jumping to Spotify.
The apps will come with support for playlists, radio, and a related artists feature that surfaces recommendations. Unfortunately, the mobile apps won't support offline playback — you'll need a data connection or Wi-FI to listen to music on your mobile device. Microsoft says that app updates "in the coming months" will let you cache music for offline playback. On a positive note, both the Android and iOS apps look the way they should for those platforms. Microsoft hasn't tried to force its design language into another ecosystem.
Windows 8.1 app ditches Metro for the web design
When Windows 8.1 goes live on October 17th, the Metro-styled Windows 8 app will be replaced by a UI identical to the new web design. The original Music app was abandoned because it was a pain to use. Horizontal scrolling has aesthetic and functional advantages sometimes, but it's very poorly suited to navigating a huge catalogue of music. (The new Music app is actually already available in the Windows 8.1 Preview that launched back at the Build developer conference in June,)
The experience on Xbox One
On Xbox One, Music will support voice and gesture control. Amongst the supported voice commands will be "Xbox, play music." "Xbox, pause music." "Xbox, next song." "Xbox, previous song." And, as with Xbox today, you'll be able to use your voice to access anything you can see on the screen. You'll also be able to listen to music while you use other apps, so you can get your metal on while you Forza your reality away.
When Xbox One hits on November 22, the console version of the Music app will get a cleaner, more attractive design than before as well as an expanded feature set including most of the new features we've already seen as updates on the other platforms. But the way these new features are implemented on the console app says a lot about Xbox's interface priorities going forward.
Music sticks to the Xbox One's horizontal scrolling strictly at the surface level. You'll note that it would seem that Microsoft is repeating its mistake from the original Windows 8 app by forcing design principles that aren't great for tons of content. But on the other hand, by sticking to that design, it's forced to effectively cut back the options and streamline functionality. And though it might not have been as apparent on the desktop products, privileging radio and playlists is actually a way of making the app easier to use.
When you launch Music the most stirking addition is that you now land on a proper home screen that presents you with your recent plays, a quick nav button to head to playlists. If you want to dive into your Collection, which is where playlists used to live, you still can, but the point is that you're getting the option not to jump into a messy series of choices if you don't want to. The next screen over from home is Radio, which now has its own page with recently played stations and a couple of recommendations. Again, the option to create a new station is there, but to speed things along, Xbox Music, tries to eliminate your need to think. Beyond these first two screens, are the Featured and Top Lists which populate with globally popular music that's likely to appeal to you based on what you like. Yup, music discovery, quietly creeping its way in.
Still not finished...
A year ago, Xbox Music wasn't really all the way there, and despite the breadth of new offerings, it remains a bit of a head-scratcher. The competition between all of the different music subscription services out there is tricky because from the perspective of actual licensed content alone, it can be pretty difficult to choose between them.
And in a way, this is Xbox Music's problem: It's late to the game, there's nothing really special about it, and in fact, it's missing important, straight-forward features that its competitors already have. For example, Xbox Music is relying very heavily on its artist-based radio, but besides suggestion you different radio stations to start listening to, it doesn't personalise to your taste yet. If you skip a track, Xbox Music doesn't get the message that you don't like something. This is the most basic of features that launched with Pandora a million years ago.
On the other hand, you do get the sense that the product and the team behind it are improving things in the right way. Platform-agnostic accessibility is huge, and the current push to streamline the experience of getting from launching the app to listening to music is admirable.
The service is even primed to get some innovative features. With the Windows 8.1 launch in October, there will be a cool new playlist generation tool for Xbox One baked directly into Internet Explorer. Using The Echo Nest's expansive music data platform, the new feature allows you to generate a playlist of music by scraping the web page you're on for artist names. That's neat! And better still, it could be the beginning of better things for Xbox Music in a new era.