et your headphones ready, music lovers: On Tuesday, Microsoft will replace its flagging Zune service with Xbox Music, a new service poised to take a bite out of Apple's dominant market share in the music-download industry. "Music fans have often viewed Microsoft as something like a bad cover band," says Nick Winfield at The New York Times: A company "that pumped out uninviting facsimiles of Apple's iPod and iTunes." But Xbox Music, which Microsoft bills as the world's first "all-in-one music service," could be the game-changer the company has been looking for. Here, a guide:
What is Xbox Music?
A comprehensive music service for the Xbox console with several different subscription options. Free, unlimited music can be streamed from the service, with advertisements playing every 15 to 20 minutes. An ad-free version of Xbox Music can also be purchased for $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. The Xbox Music catalog currently consists of 30 million tracks, with 18 million available in the United States.
This actually sounds a lot like Pandora. Is it?
No, it's much more, which is why it poses a threat to iTunes. Microsoft's biggest innovation: Combining an iTunes-style "download-to-own" system with a streaming radio service like Pandora or Spotify, which iTunes currently doesn't offer. With Xbox Music, Microsoft is attempting to provide a service that can fill all of its customers' music needs in one place — with the potential bonus of eliminating its subscribers' need to use any competing services.
Do I need an Xbox 360 to use it?
No — but if you don't use the gaming console, you will need to use a Windows 8-equipped computer, tablet, or phone. Microsoft says that Xbox Music will be available for Apple and Android devices "sometime next year," but hasn't offered any specific dates.
Does Xbox Music live up to the hype?
It's a promising start. “This gives Microsoft a strong music story which they’ve lacked for years and extends the Xbox brand to media and entertainment,” says marketing analyst Michael Gartenberg; "a free streaming service with ads every 15 or 20 minutes is pretty compelling," and will put a lot of pressure on competing services. Xbox Music is "a strong initial offering" that "comes as close as I've seen to a unified music library experience," agrees Matthew Moskovciak at CNET.
Okay, so what's the catch?
There's one big hurdle, says analyst Richard Greenfield at The New York Times: The lack of a popular, dedicated player like an iPod or iPhone. The question is whether the service will be compelling enough to sell more Microsoft products. "[Xbox Music] is not going to matter if no one wants the devices." Agreed, says Jason Cross at PC World: "If Microsoft hopes to shake off its Zune history and make Xbox Music a huge hit, it needs to enable broad support outside of Microsoft's own ecosystem" — but if that happens, this "could be the music service to beat."
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