Will Xbox Music Go The Way of the Zune?

Posted by · October 15, 2012 3:28 pm

If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it a thousand times: I’m a Microsoft user.  I plan to purchase a Windows 8 device sometime in the next 12 months; and I truly hope that Windows 8 helps Steve Ballmer and the folks at Microsoft resurrect what, at times, appears to be a struggling brand.  The developer, consumer and release previews of Windows 8 have been available for a while now, and initial reviews of the software have been mixed, but skewing positive.  As Microsoft gears up for the official October 26th product launch event (I’m still waiting for my invite), the company is also promoting a few other Windows 8 related products including the Microsoft Surface tablet and the newly announced Xbox Music service.

If you know anything about Windows 8, you know that creating the Surface tablet is a logical step for Microsoft. The Windows 8 interface works best on a touch screen; and keyboard-and-mouse-based-PCs are not topping anyone’s Christmas list these days.  For Microsoft, building a tablet of their own is a key way to stay competitive in the market; and if the company plays its cards (or rather, designs its product) right, the Surface could fill a tablet sized void in the enterprise space. What I find more interesting—and slightly confounding—is today’s announcement of Microsoft’s Xbox Music service.

For Microsoft, the impetus for Xbox Music is probably two-fold. First, like creating a tablet, having your own proprietary music service seems necessary for competing with tech hitters these days. Launching Xbox Music is almost something users expect them to do. Second, Microsoft realized about 18 months ago that Xbox users were largely using the video game console as an entertainment hub, not necessarily to play video games and the company has been steadily ramping up the music and video streaming options it provides Xbox users since then.  Those two things being said, Microsoft has been down the digital music road before.  Remember the Zune? (If not, here’s a sad looking website to jog your memory.)

This time around, however, the company is doing a few things differently like leveraging their top selling gaming console and the buzz surrounding Windows 8 to launch the service.

Xbox Music will be available on Xbox this Tuesday and on Windows based computers and tablets starting October 26th.  The service will offer free, ad-supported music streaming, subscription based ad-free streaming for $9.99 and a music store with over 30 million songs that users can download to own. (The iTunes library only has 26 million songs.)  Xbox Music also has over 70,000 downloadable music videos and offers cloud-storage features.

Basically, Xbox Music sounds like iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Cloud Player, Spotify, Pandora and MTV circa the 1990s all rolled into one. The problem is that the success of Xbox Music largely hinges on people’s adoption of Microsoft based devices.  And while the 67 million Xboxes sold since 2005 make a strong case for use of Xbox Music on the Xbox itself, it remains to be seen whether Windows 8 will boost PC sales in general and whether the Microsoft Surface will be able to compete with the iPad (probably not) or Google-based tablets (possibly).  Let’s hope the lackluster sales of the new Windows Phones aren’t any indication of future product sales, otherwise Microsoft may be disappointed in more than just people’s response to Xbox Music.

Another thing that concerns me about Xbox Music is just how complicated the digital music space is (licensing fees, royalties, etc) and just how much successful competition is already out there.  As previously mentioned, I think Windows 8 and the Microsoft Surface provide Microsoft with a real opportunity to be the leader in touch-based, tablet computing in the enterprise space; and I’d hate to see the company get distracted with launching too many peripheral, consumer-focused products on the side.

Hopefully Microsoft will focus their Xbox team (who are obviously doing something right) on growing Xbox Music for Xbox and not be afraid to kill the product on PCs and tablets if the adoption rate isn’t there. I suppose only time and product sales will tell whether Xbox Music is a good play for Microsoft. While I doubt it will ever be as successful as iTunes, I sincerely hope it won’t go “zuning” towards failure either.  What about you, fellow Microsoft users? What do you think of Xbox Music? Will you use it or will you stick with the existing music streaming and downloading services you’re already using?