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Xbox Music for Windows Phone and the challenge of starting over

Let us not beat around the bush: Xbox Music on Windows Phone 8.1 has been a rough ride. Ever since the separation of the app from the OS, criticism for being behind not only the competition but behind Windows Phone 8.0 hangs around the proverbial neck of the Xbox Music team.

Earlier this week, we spoke with Jerry Johnson, Group Program Manager and Gurpratap Virdi, Director of Engineering, both of OSG Entertainment Apps about Xbox Music, including where it is heading and why it had such a rough start.

The answers may surprise you.

Remind me again, why you did this?

The question on many people's minds is why Microsoft even extracted the app from the OS in the first place. Clearly, this is a complicated task as opposed to just making a good, native player and sticking with it.

In speaking with Johnson and Virdi, the answer is a bit more nuanced as it comes down to future services that Xbox Music is likely to support. The problem is, Microsoft as a company is pivoting, and there are many things coming down the road, features that are not ready for integration into Xbox Music. The Xbox Music team says they need an app to be an "extension" of their services, and not just an endpoint. They want the flexibility of being able to update dynamically when the other half of Microsoft comes around, and not to have to shoehorn everything into a more complicated OS update.

Case in point is the rumored usage of OneDrive as a "cloud locker" for music files. Although Johnson and Virdi would not commit to that feature coming, they did note that such an extension of Xbox Music is "critical," which should tell you something. OneDrive though is undergoing numerous changes itself and those two teams need to meet at some point down the road. Xbox Music as an app can rise to meet that challenge; Xbox Music built into the OS would need to wait.

This future integration is but one example, and apparently, Microsoft – and the Xbox Music team – have plans for the service. Keeping the built-in app would severely hinder the ability to get those features to users. You do not have to look far for the rage when a Microsoft app on iOS or Android gets features that Windows Phone lacks. Compounding this issue was Xbox Music being un-updatable, hence the shift in strategy.

Xbox Music on 8.1 should have been a beta

The problem with the aforementioned reasoning is the current user experience. Since the Windows Phone 8.1 Preview just over two months ago, Xbox Music on Windows Phone 8.1 has had seven updates, with a significant release coming tomorrow and another in two weeks.

The update tomorrow should bring with it two critical improvements:

  • Recents playlist (revealed on the Windows Phone blog earlier this week)
  • Up to 50% performance improvement for launching the app and scrolling within

Once Microsoft's recently announced Update 1 Preview goes live, another substantial update is coming. That update brings with it a new Live Tile and Kid's Corner, both of which depend on underlying changes to the OS found in Update 1.

Regardless of the cadence of updates, it is evident that many users still find it all underwhelming. Johnson and Virdi are under no impression otherwise, and in fact were quite honest about where they were, where they are now, and where they want to be going forward. Indeed, they now admit that the Xbox Music app when it came out with the Preview for Developers should have had a 'beta' label as a signal to users that this is far from the final product. Although a minor name change, it probably could have done a lot to fend off some of the more vociferous criticisms tossed out against the app and the team behind it (even if Windows Phone users are suffering lately from 'beta fatigue').

In my 30-minute conversation though with Virdi and Johnson, they never once tried to mask the inadequacies found with Xbox Music though they are confident that it is getting better, and it will continue to do so with more updates. The improvements are tangible, especially after the last update, but issues like doubling in the playlist still hound them as they go forward.

Part of the problem is untying – and rebuilding – the app from scratch. The other is a shift in the underlying coding language from the 8.0 app to the one 8.1. As a result, the degraded performance is significant when compared to previous releases. Even after tomorrow's update, the app will not be as fast as when it was built in, but the Xbox Music team says they are certain that they can change this in future versions, and tomorrow's update goes a long way in getting there.

Your criticism is valuable. Do more yelling (okay maybe not yelling)

One curious aspect about Microsoft that I have known about for some time, but many in our audience may not, is Microsoft's renewed attention to consumer outreach. We mention UserVoice numerous times in our past Xbox Music reporting, and it is a tool that Microsoft values. Bringing attention to the voting-board and suggestion site is evidently having a significant impact. Jerry Johnson tells us that their Xbox Music UserVoice (xboxmusic.uservoice.com) jumped from a "few hundred" visits up to 45K after our coverage – and they love it. Subsequently, they have registered more than 800 suggestions and 14K votes by the community, with five of the top 13 suggestions already completed by his team.

And yes, they read your comments here too – all of them.

Considering some of the vitriol hurled at the Xbox Music team, wading in our comments section seems like a trial by fire, but Gurpratap Virdi and Jerry Johnson say it is necessary; moreover, they enjoy the passion by the community. After all, many of you express your sentiments – even if profane – only because you want Xbox Music to be praiseworthy. They get that.

The effort by Microsoft to engage with the Windows Phone community (even in our forums, where they have reached out to some of you privately) is a relatively new approach and a rare one by a company of Microsoft's size. One could argue though that enterprises like Apple do not need to 'crowd source' their apps and services – they dictate; Microsoft's actions imply the failure to understand what customers want. There is certainly some truth in that, after all many companies do not resort to such means to make successful products. Instead, they have gurus, visionaries, and team leaders that forge a path with nary a glance to what customers are demanding.

Microsoft's methodology – if unorthodox – is at least democratic, and democracy can be messy. I still find it humbling to see Microsoft asking people what they want, letting them vote on ideas, and then prioritizing those for development. Customers having a real voice in 2014 is refreshing. Nevertheless, like all participatory systems, it is only as good as those ideas suggested and if people are voting.

Will they please add "X" feature?

Finally, many of you are possibly wondering what is the real scoop, what is in store for Xbox Music next? Virdi and Johnson would not of course share with me their feature roadmap, which is in large part decided by your top-voted suggestions, but they did give drop a few hints. Things like gapless playback, improved performance, social sharing (already part of the web version), cloud storage and more are all on their radar as registering as being relevant to users. To be sure, gapless playback, recently played, and a Live Tile are all top-voted suggestions; at least two of those get addressed in the next updates. Without committing to those remaining features, both Johnson and Virdi strongly implied those things were likely to come at some point. The question is, with Windows Phone 8.1 and Update 1 devices nearing release, is it too little too late?

That is up to you and your votes.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

596 Comments
  • I appreciate the hard work.
  • They are actually making the app better on Windows and WP than on other platforms, FINALLY! They are now putting in a lot of work.
  • On other platforms you need a paid membership to even use it... 
  • Well many people have the music pass, like me, so...
  • There are two sides to modern music players.
    1. Ability to play your owned music catalogue efficiently and effectively
    2. Ability to enjoyably discover new music and playlists, which is what you are really paying for.
    XBM fails badly on both counts, but particularly on the second why does MS think I'll pay a premium monthly subscription price for such a shoddy, useless product? Nokia's MixRadio is a much better price and function for music discovery.
    It's not just Windows Phone, XBM is useless for discovery on all platforms - lack of curated playlists, limited and poor radio channels, lack of decent algorithms, no social features, inability to stream based on chart compilation albums etc.
    I tried a few times buying the music pass to use XBM for parties (from Windows and Xbox One, not WP) but always it was a complete flop and ruined the mood due to buggy behaviour and inability to discover anything other than the top few chart albums.
    Xbox music has been so bad for so long, and not resolved in the false dawns of two years of updates, that getting even loyal MS fans like me to try again will be an uphill struggle.
    So speak to commercial guys and refund or deeply discount the bloody music pass until you can put out a service which isn't a beta experience on ALL platforms. Then maybe I'll try again. You are abusing your early adopters by expecting us to pay so much. Satya may not be able to magic a headline DJ to the party any quicker, but he could at least put some cash behind the bar so we can drink through this dirge.
    And at least manually/tactically pinch some decent Radio playlists from Mix Radio before you sell it!
  • I agree with what you are saying, in all the ways XBM is lacking makes it a very bad choise when you have services like Spotify.   If the mobile experience was more inline with the web experience i would propably switch almost instantly. I want to support Microsoft but i am not supporting a bad product.
  • I would also add that given XBM app on WP is *!*! and it is likely to be years before a decent release finally comes out then MSFT should at least give us the opportunity to uninstall the current version. The previous Hub version is still available via the Music Hub Tile app and at least it manages (with the usual fiddles) to show local Album Art and Artists - looks so much better as well.
  • No matter what you give them, people will find something to complain about.
  • In response to AnotherCookie, on other platforms you can get a useable app, free upload/cloud playback of your personal collection, gapless audio, in-app equaliser, working (and easily editable) meta data, etc. You pay to have unlimited streaming or to buy individual items. Stop spouting FUD. Xbox has a ways to go, but it is heartening to see them here to communicate with the community. It gives a warm feeling that progress will continue, and there has been progress, even if problems are still widespread.
  • Hoorah for Microsoft! :D
  • I like the new Microsoft
  • Oh Daniel, deadmaus? Really?
  • That's a shot MS put out when they announced update1.
  • I hope they update the Xbox Music app on Windows 8 to make it a real substitute for the old Zune Software. It allowed us to do everything: rip CDs, edit metadata, sync music with the phone, create and manage autoplaylists, etc), all in a single piece of software. The ONLY reason I am still on Windows 7 is because of the Zune Software... Something like in this user voice idea:
    http://xboxmusic.uservoice.com/forums/209733-xbox-music-suggestion-box/suggestions/4309104-how-about-one-application-to-do-everything
  • Why can't you use Zune on Windows 8.1? It works fine on my first gen surface pro. Nearly all Windows 7 programs run on Windows 8.1 desktop.
  • It's not that Zune doesn't work, it's that it was a far superior solution to syncing than the windows phone sync app or using the horrendously slow Windows Media Player.
  • Actually I did not try to install the Zune Software because the Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant listed Zune Software as an incompatible software... So I decided not to waste time doing all the upgrade process just to discover my favourite music player would not work anymore. Zune Software was miles ahead of the "Windows Phone app for desktop" for syncing music... It doesn't work anymore with WP8/8.1 but it is still my favourite desktop music player. But I'm talking about the Zune Software, not the device (Zune Player). The Zune Software really works on Windows 8, even with Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant telling me the opposite?
  • Yup still works for me!
  • Yup same here and still using my Zune HD 64 GB player too smiling.
  • I just ftp everything into my phone.
  • Yes it works I still use it everyday to listen to music while I am at home. I just wish they would update it to work with WP 8.1
  • Zune still works on Windows 8.1, you just can't sync files to WP..
  • The same for me. After upgrading to 8.1, I can't get the software to load no matter what. I asked an MS tech support person about it and he said 8.1 doesn't support Zune software. I don't know how others are getting it to work. I still use my Zune a lot and I can't get new music onto it because I only have an 8.1 device. 
  • ZUNE desktop PC software works on my SurfacePro 2 running 8.1 OS.  The software is very nice.
     
  • Hell yeah. Bring back Zune
  • I installed it when I had 8.0, and did the upgrade to 8.1. Still works. I can't comment on installing it with 8.1 first though. I use it over the XBox Music app, as XBox Music was more processor intensive and the fans would kick in. I might have to check to see if it is still doing that as it has been updated quite a few times since then. But I have the grandfathered ZunePass w/ 10 song monthly download, so using XBox Music is kinda pointless as it hasn't let me purchase using those credits.
  • ...zune works perfectly fine on windows 8...
  • Zune was laggy on w7, w8, is still laggy on w8.1. It's pretty functional despite all that. Excellent for creating playlists and categorising my downloaded videos and TV shows
  • How was it laggy? Only on lesser hardware would it lag when displaying album art would it every lag for me, but you had the options to turn down the effects to make it run smoother. It has gotten slower finding albums from the market and downloading purchased songs now, as I think Microsoft is pulling server resources away from Zune, but in the past those were very fast for finding and downloading music. But searching local, is very quick for me.
  • That's not windows fault, that's your computer, there's is no conflict with windows 8.x with Zune
  • Yeah, I second having a Zune-like software, the sync app for Windows phone isn't good enough. I own a ton of music and prefer transferring and organizing via playlists and the like. Uploading and streaming my own music is a no-go because I have a relatively small amount of bandwidth on my plan. I hope they take into consideration that the 520 is used by a lot of people on prepaid with minimum bandwidth and would find that sort of software handy.
  • They do have Zune for Windows 8 too...
  • Yeah! Zune software was great. Also I'd really like to have a playcount-sync again. I cant believe nobody wants this?
  • I didn't realize this was gone. I didn't personally use it for anything, but kinda assumed that hitting random created a playlist with an algorithm that chose songs that were frequently played and songs that haven't been played or something like that.
  • I don't know. Maybe it still does. But I'd like to synchronise how often I played a song in my PC and on my phone. So I can easily see what my most beloved songs are and (like you said) create automatic playlists.
  • The lack of Zune style syncing is a major issue, please vote if you also agree:
    http://xboxmusic.uservoice.com/forums/209733-xbox-music-suggestion-box/s...
  • I hope they fix the playlist bug , It always disappear when I added a new playlist from library
  • Yeah, if it weren't for the frequent updates I'd be truly upset. Which I was truthfully enraged when 8.1 first dropped, but since I can plainly see that they are working on it, and care about it, I am actually quite happy again. Not Zune HD happy, but much less worried about the future of Microsoft's music services.
  • I agree. I'm impressed with MS. I am glad they use the information from uservoice, like keeping the Cortana codename as the service name also. ///
    WPCentral wields alot of power. Those numbers are impressive!
  • They will get is there.I have no doubt.
  • I really miss being able to see new song releases by genre.
  • Yeah, me too. Today Xbox Music is better than old Music App. Much better! In two months MS works very well top improve performance and features on Xbox Music app.
  • They really thought the album art problem has been fixed?
  • Agreed.
  • Agreed - I still have albums where each MP3 file already has an album art, but the Xbox Music app on WP8.1 replaces it with a wrongly matched one (completely irrelevant as well). It is definitely not fixed. What also really annoys me is that you can't "unmatch" an incorrectly matched album/artist. I have this album that has all the correct metadata in the files themselves, yet Xbox Music tells me it's some other album from a random artist I've never heard of. Deleting the files from my phone and readding them won't help either.
  • Yeah, I love how it splits my Forrest Gump album out into a dozen albums, and some of them aren't even the correct artist.  Pbht. :P
  • Did they plan this in advance to separate everything or was this some last minute "hey let's try this" sort of thing? I need answers.
  • No one asked them to split it into 5 apps.  I certainly didn't.  I can't stand it.  I wanted a Zune experience, not a five-app experience with less than a third the features of Zune.
  • They seriously need to fix blank album arts. Every other dam music app can do it; why not Microsoft's?? Probably the most frustrating bug beside lags.
  • I too hope they don't think work is complete there. It either changes the album art to something completely different or leaves it as a blank, grey square. Surely if I had no album artwork, MS could design something more interesting to look at. I'll continue to use MixRadio in the mean time. It at least displays all of my collection on my phone correctly.
  • All I ever see is "blank grey square"..it is literally as dull as dishwater. They need something else instead if they can't find the album art
  • I'd use the lock screen image as a replacement. Or a color the user has chosen, if I were the Xboxmusic team.
  • if i were in xboxmusic team, i would use bing search and put the album/artist on that album art.  and an artist background.
  • Do HARD RESET. It fixed the album art problem for me. =)
  • Doing a hard reset seems to always be the answer to fix bugs on WP. If MixRadio can correctly display my albums, so should XBM.
  • A lot of stuff all the updates were supposed to fix has actually not been fixed: disappearing playlists, duplicate items, slow scrolling and launching, playback limited to >100 tracks.....
  • Starting over? You can only start over so many times. Unless those at the head of this mess are fired, "starting over" really isn't starting over, but just rebooting this train-wreck.
  • I could only hope whoever decied to remove the old xbox music app was fired. I understand that they need the new app to not be baked into the OS, But they could have at least kept the old one around until the new one was USEABLE. To this day, i still hardly even touch my phone for music anymore. It's so depressing to see all the loading. Xbox music use to be my favorite app.
  • Old one was just unusable for me, those multiple instances of one file were killing me and even that was slow until Lumia black.
    This new app may be going slow but I can use it at least.
  • I agree, the old app had to die.. even if only for that music duplication glitch, microsoft tried 3 times to fix that bug in 3 seperate updates and still failed in the end, that tells me that something weas horribly horribly wrong with that music player
  • True the old Hub app had issues but at least they could mostly be solved, mulitple instances for example were fixed, for me, by editing the metadata and Album Art also enabled properly after using MP3tag etc. It is of course still available if you use the Music Hub Tile app. Just wish I could uninstall the current XBM app.
  • your running into two issues here   1) the old music player would then be stuck their until an os update removes it 2) from a PR standpoint everyone would bitch about how "8.1 didnt update the music player at all and instead they built a new shitty app" either way, there was gonne be whining, cutting cold turkey was the best move
  • Hear hear! :)
  • Nokia MixRadio is a much better way of listening to not only customized mixes but your own music collection too. Switch over to that, at least until MS can get their shit together.
  • I think mix radio is only available to Lumia phones
  • Even if it is, it's still applicable to 95% of us
  • 75%
  • 95% Source: http://www.wpcentral.com/adduplex-july-2014
  • ~95% of WPs are Nokia, but that doesn't mean everyone with a Lumia uses MixRadio. Heck, I don't listen to music at all on my phone (which isn't a Lumia), and it's not because of the XBM app. The number of people who it's applicable to is probably between your two numbers. Besides, even if it was just 5%, that's still a lot of people who may want an alternative.
  • This is the crux of the problem. We get that starting over takes time. But it's PR suicide to make your customers walk that journey over and over in such a short time. Yea, the app should have been labelled Beta, but also they should let you access the original version UNTIL IT'S READY! Not before, who likes using a service that repeatedly gets worse and has bugs? It erodes trust in the service.
    Also, this design by committee idea is ok to an extent, but sometimes you need an in house visionary to push the design otherwise things don't end up so well thought out.
    Case in point: would we have ended up with metro and live tiles through roadmap via uservoice!? I don't see how that would happen.
  • They do have the old one around. I mean there is a way to access it.
    I use the same for all my music needs.
    http://www.windowsphone.com/s?appid=3faa2f9e-6b8d-440a-bb60-5dd76a5baec1
  • You realized that the only way you could have gotten the new app was by opting into the developer preview program, right?  Now that 8.1 is rolling out officially, they've fixed a lot of the issues with the music app.
  • I wish there was a like button for comments here
  • Like
  • I'm getting really tired of this marketing spiel "look, we acknowledge our mistakes; we're starting over".   they started over with wp7, then with 7.5 then with 8 then with 8.1 and there's always a lot of talk of how things are going to be smoother and more feature rich in the future, yet all i see is them slowly breaking down the functionality they had 3-4 years ago already! there's only so many times i'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. every time i let them build my hopes up that it will be better in 'the future' they proceed to disappoint. come to think of it that should be the slogan of windows phone 'it will be better in the future' /rant
  • 100% agree with manwe. I would be very curious to know if, with each restart, did a new team get assigned with new managers. Because it feels that way from what I'm experiencing. If you want to win over iPhone and Android customers, you better have a music app that they can try and feel is BETTER. My advice, User Voice is nice, but get out the documentation for Zune and Nokia Mix Radio, and start porting capabilities from those music players as well. They are both examples that people cite over and over again as better than Xbox music. Fine. Then use THEM as a vision of where to move forward. Everyone on this thread want XBM to be better. We all want that development team to succeed. Good luck and keep pushing forward.
  • It's good news that they're taking all of our opinions into account when updating Xbox Music and adding new features to it. I don't think it's too late for improvements; I think it's just getting started.
  • Why is it that many Microsoft services are either in beta or act like a beta?
  • The app and service are two different things. Xbox Music, for all of its faults, to me doesn't feel like a beta. It does the core things right, but they did have to move from Zune (just PC) to Xbox Music (Xbox, PC, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Web), which last I check is not a trivial undertaking.
  • I wish they had just not gotten rid of zune. I mean sure changed the name of the software, but kept the actual software itself as it was fantastic. I still use it to this day on my desktop, laptop and old windows phone, which is solely used as an mp3 player for the gym. i guess the windows 8.1 version of xbox music is (finally) on par with it but the phone version is still lacking.
  • Maybe... But it REALLY wouldn't make sense having two native music apps. It *has* to be one.
  • That's simply not true.  They maintain two separate apps for Skype (desktop vs metro), Windows Phone sync app (desktop vs metro) and will do the same for office (Gemini vs vanilla).
  • So far all the desktop apps have more features and/or work better than the metro versions.
  • Skype yes, WP sync app I actually like the metro one better.  But generally speaking comparing desktop to metro you'd be giving up functionality and information density for touch screen usability.  I think things might change when they window up the metro apps in Windows 9 though.
  • The WP sync app is a joke. I hate that when i click on one of the features (except syncing) it just forwards me to the webpage... I mean, how hard can it be do include the store into that app? Or the locator? It would just make a better overall impression. Same with the Win8 store: If there is a universal App, please let me install it on all my devices directly without looking it up in my phone!? IMO the ModernUI is so beatuiful und has so many options, but there are only a few MS Apps that use it properly, especially on Win8.
  • It does the core things right? (Album arts, rasping sound when tracks change?) No, it doesn't. And they really shouldn't read ALL our comments here. Not even we do.
  • This. Daniel, I respectfully disagree with your comment. For me and for many, Xbox Music is a total piece of shit and is pretty terrible at preforming its "core" features.
  • I'm with you on that. One of the few times I disagree with Daniel.
  • You know what really sucks is how long it takes to change music on the lock screen. I click next and then by the time the next title pops up t