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Microsoft (s MSFT) announced the launch of Xbox Music Sunday night, which could become the company’s first serious attempt to take on both Spotify and iTunes. It will debut on Microsoft’s own platforms first, but come to Android (s GOOG) and iOS (s AAPL) soon after. That’s a remarkable different tune from a company whose most recent attempt in the digital music space focused all around its ill-fated Zune device.
Xbox Music is in many ways Microsoft’s attempt to catch up with everything that has been going on in the digital music space in the last two years: The service will offer a free, ad-supported tier for playback on Windows 8 devices, a $10 subscription tier for ad-free playback on Windows 8 devices as well as the Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 8 and finally a digital download store for those Black Keys tracks you won’t be getting on Spotify either. Oh, and a paid cloud locker service with track matching a la iTunes Match will be added soon as well.
So why is Xbox Music interesting? For consumers, it could be enticing to get all those services from one single company. For Xbox users, there’s something to be said about the integration with the device. Microsoft gave me a demo of Xbox Music on the console during a recent press briefing, controlled with a Windows 8 tablet – and searching for songs on the tablet and then sending them to the Xbox via SmartGlass is actually very, very neat.
But the biggest story to me is that Xbox Music will embrace Android and iOS. Jerry Johnson, general manager of Xbox Music, wasn’t able to tell me exactly when the apps for those two platforms are going to come out, but the sense that I took away from the briefing was that his team is working on making it happen sooner rather than later. Xbox Music on Android and iOS will look very much like Xbox Music on Windows Phone 8, which itself in many ways follows the style formerly known as Metro.
So why is this big news? Because Microsoft’s past attempts of getting into the music space were much more territorial. The company completely reinvented its DRM for Zune Music, making sure that Zune downloads wouldn’t play on anyone’s hardware but Microsoft’s – a move that irked countless hardware partners who had gotten their devices certified for Microsoft’s previous music format.
Asked about which lessons Microsoft learned during those years, the company’s director of Xbox Music industry relations Christina Calio told me: “It’s about the service, not the device.” Of course, it helps if you already have a popular device with millions of units sold to promote your service – which is why Xbox Music will be rolling out on the Xbox starting Tuesday.