Microsoft expands Xbox music to smartphones, free Web player

Microsoft has become the latest tech giant to expand its online music streaming service, another indication of the growing popularity of on-demand Internet radio.

Starting today, the company’s Xbox Music streaming service will be available for free on the Web, and won’t require the Windows 8 operating system or the Xbox console.  The company is also releasing new apps for Android and iOS so consumers can stream music on their mobile devices. The expansion is intended to bring new customers to the Seattle-based software giant’s services and could help it compete with other digital music offerings such as Pandora, Spotify and Rdio.

It’s been 13 years since the founding of Oakland-based Pandora, one of the earliest Internet radio companies, and 12 years since Rhapsody, the music subscription service that merged with the infamous Napster, joined the Web music business. But as smartphones and tablet technology advanced — and mobile devices entered the mass consumer market — online music services have replaced the old Walkmans, CD players, and yes, even many iPods. The demand is so hot that Google recently launched a paid subscription music service called All Access, and Apple followed in June with its music streaming service, iTunes Radio.

Microsoft’s move also is an acknowledgement of the poor reception of Windows 8, whose sales have flopped since the company released it last fall. Now, Microsoft can get consumers onto the company’s music service without worrying about getting them over to Windows 8 first.

Other experts point to the music streaming expansion as another example of Microsoft expanding its ecosystem to include dozens of services and devices outside its core product — Windows software. Some analysts have said Microsoft has diversified too much, and the company has become impossible to manage. (CEO Steve Ballmer announced last month he would retire within the year.)

But for music fans, the availability of more free music on the Web can only be good news. Xbox Music allows people to choose from 30 million tracks and stream them for free with ads, and listeners can download tracks from artists or labels not available for streaming.  A radio service on Xbox Music also generates playlists of in a certain genre or by similar artists, just like on Pandora. More music for more people, and for free.

But like most of the Internet radio services out there, Microsoft is also hoping most consumers will pay a little something. A $10 per month subscription to the Xbox Music Pass gets you the Android and iOS apps. The ad-supported Web version is free, and listeners will have unlimited access for six months, but after that they will be limited to 10 hours a month. However, as Pandora and Spotify have found, only a small percentage of listeners are willing to pay any monthly fees.

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