Microsoft is taking on Spotify -- as well as the rest of the streaming music market.
The technology giant on Monday is taking the wraps off of its rebranded digital music service, now called Xbox Music, that promises an all-in-one music experience. It wraps together free, on-demand music streaming, a scan-and-match feature, a download store and artist radio stations.
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Microsoft, which spent a year building Xbox Music from the ground up, says the new service is more than a reskinned version of its previous Zune Music offering. The biggest difference is the free on-demand service, which lets users select from a catalog of about 30 million songs. Similar to Spotify, the free tier will be supported by advertising.
Christina Calio, Microsoft's director of industry relations, spearheaded the label negotiations to secure the necessary licenses for the new offering. Calio worked in sales and marketing at Geffen Records from1989 to 2000 before joining Microsoft.
A premium version, for $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year, lets subscribers get rid of ads and be able to cache music to listen to when there is no Internet connection. The paid tier also allows users to listen on Xbox 360 game consoles via its Xbox Live online service and on mobile devices running Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system.
The service will begin to roll out this week, first appearing on Xbox 360 game consoles on Oct. 16, followed by tablets and PCs on Oct. 26. Cell phones will get the service after Oct. 29.
For now, Xbox Music can only be accessed on Windows 8 computers and cell phones, Xbox 360 and tablets with the Windows RT operating system. The company plans to add the service to iOS and Android devices sometime next year, according to Xbox Music GM Jerry Johnson.
Xbox Music also strives to unify people's existing digital music library with the tracks available on the service so all the music, whether it's on a user's computer or streamed from the Internet via Microsoft servers, are presented in one place for listeners to choose from.
"We wanted to make it so listening to music doesn't require people to work," Johnson says. "It should just be easy and fun."
Microsoft announced it would launch a new music service back in June, but did not release any details, except to say that the Zune brand would be replaced by its Xbox brand. Though Xbox started as the name for its videogame console, the company said it planned to expand the moniker to all of its digital entertainment endeavors so as to have a unified brand.
Zune "was confusing to consumers because it was not well integrated with other Microsoft products," Johnson says. But with close to 100 million Xbox and Xbox 360 game consoles sold worldwide, the Xbox brand has become far better recognized than Zune, particularly among the young, early adopter demographic that plays games.
Case in point: the music service launch has been carefully orchestrated to coincide with the Oct. 26 launch of the new Windows 8 operating system, which is supported by a massive, $1.5 billion marketing campaign. Xbox Music is also being woven into the company's unveiling on Oct. 29 of a new slate of mobile phones. In addition, the music service will be part of its annual Xbox software update, an overnight ritual that console owners have come to anticipate because it generally delivers a slew of new features and services.
Will the new Xbox Music, with its new bells and whistles, be enough to woo listeners away from Pandora, Spotify and others?
Johnson acknowledges that consumers have a lot of choice, but emphasizes Xbox Music's ability to give customers everything in one place.
"If people want an elegant, fun and integrated experience, Xbox Music is the only single choice out there," he says. "It allows you to have the best music experience on the TV, the tablet, mobile and, eventually, the Web."
What's New in Xbox Music:
-- Free, ad-supported on-demand streaming service
-- Scan-and-match service that lets users listen to their existing music collection from an Internet connection without having to upload songs for which Microsoft has the license.
-- Cloud locker that lets users upload additional song files that Microsoft does not have the licenses for. This feature will not be available until next year
-- Xbox Music will debut in 22 markets internationally, up from the 8 markets that Zune operated in last year