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Originally published September 8, 2013 at 9:03 PM | Page modified September 9, 2013 at 6:44 PM

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Xbox Music is here, for better and worse

It took more than a decade, but Microsoft has finally consolidated its various digital music ventures under one roof, with a standard jukebox and streaming music service for the phone, PC and Xbox platforms.

Seattle Times technology columnist

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It took more than a decade, but Microsoft has finally consolidated its various digital music ventures under one roof, with a standard jukebox and streaming music service for the phone, PC and Xbox platforms.

Called Xbox Music, it’s a decent option with a visually striking presentation that’s a remnant of its Zune music venture.

Xbox Music is more than a feature, though. It’s a cloud-based service that’s constantly updated and extended across all sorts of devices, regardless of whether they’re running Windows.

Xbox Music also offers a glimpse of the kind of services business Microsoft is trying to develop, for better or worse.

First the “better.” I’ll get to the “worse” in a bit.

On Monday, the company is announcing a big upgrade to Xbox Music, which is being extended to devices running Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android software.

That means you’ll now be able to run the son of Zune on your iPod. It’s also more evidence of Microsoft’s belated realization that it’s not going to dominate every computing device in the world, and that it has to play better with others if it wants to build successful online services.

A free, ad-supported version of Xbox Music is also being offered on the Web, available through browsers. This will challenge Pandora, Spotify and other radiolike apps.

The Xbox Music app now offered on Windows 8 is also being updated in response to customer feedback. It will be released Oct. 17, when Microsoft releases the broader “8.1” update of the operating system.

A particularly nice addition to the app for Windows 8 is called Web Playlist. It lets you create a playlist, with a click, from all the bands and songs shown on a Web page. If you’re visiting the page of a music festival, for instance, it can detect all the bands listed and generate a custom playlist.

Internally, Microsoft is taking a more modern approach to developing Xbox Music, as part of its effort to become a more nimble, services-oriented business.

Instead of releasing big updates on a long timetable, Xbox Music is being continually updated with tweaks and improvements trickling out every few weeks.

This is being done by a relatively small team in a satellite office in Seattle, smack in the middle of Amazon.com’s sprawling South Lake Union campus.

A group of about 80 employees moved into the space six months ago. It works with 100 or so people based in Paris. It’s a fast-moving, distributed team that’s building something new but drawing on the company’s big investments over the years in music and online services.

“The speed of innovation has completely changed to where now, when we build something and decide to go do something, it’s not a year or even every six months for these things to come out — it’s going to be very quickly,” said Scott Porter, principal program manager.

Porter said the new approach is more customer-centric (rather than platform-centric), in that Microsoft isn’t just building a music feature for its products but a service that’s accessible no matter what device people are using. Like Netflix, Amazon or Google.

“The goal is to make music really a connective tissue, not only between Microsoft products but any product they’ve got,” he said.

That’s the “for better” side of this new approach. The “for worse” side is more subtle.

In pursuing a Netflix model, offering a subscription service available from any device, Microsoft is moving closer to a closed-garden approach and away from the open, flexible platform model that drove its first three decades of growth.

The latter seems archaic when most people embrace the closed gardens of Apple, Google and Amazon devices and app stores, which funnel users and their files to their online services.

Microsoft has been trying to play the same game for a while. You pretty much have to sign in and register with Microsoft to use a Windows 8 PC.

The Xbox is different. Like all modern consoles, it always has been locked down to protect premium content handled by the system.

But Microsoft made a concession to openness, with a backdoor on the first two versions of the Xbox. That enabled people to use the console to display and access content they owned outright and had stored on PCs in the home.

Unfortunately, that door has been removed from the Xbox One. Last week the company confirmed that the console won’t come with the “media extender” feature that enabled people to use the console to stream music, photos and video from a PC.

So far we mostly have details how the Xbox One handles music. It turns out that it will not be able to play music you own and have stored on a PC or home network, at least not directly and without a fee.

“For now it’s a $10 subscription per month on the console to get access to that,” Porter said, adding that more options may come after the Xbox One is launched.

In other words, if you want to play your music collection through the console’s default music app, you’ll have to subscribe to the premium version of the app, which costs $10 per month or $100 for a yearly subscription.

Then you can upload your music collection to Microsoft’s cloud storage service, and stream it back to the console via the Internet.

That’s in addition to the $60 per year that you must pay for premium Xbox Live Gold membership to use the music app in the first place.

Why? It’s partly because the company is still new to this stuff and figuring out what capabilities to include. The initial emphasis is on building a tight, crisp service and not one with loopholes and extensions.

But the company also is trying to get more people to subscribe to its online services, which will make more money per user than a console or operating system that’s replaced every five years.

Maybe I’m too old-fashioned, but I’ve watched Microsoft spend more than a decade encouraging people to use their PC as the hub of their digital life. For a while it even said families should have servers at home to securely store and stream their music, photos, videos and files.

Now it would prefer that you move that hub to a Microsoft data center, accessible for only $10 per month.

This is the path that beckons in a closed garden.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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