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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 15, 2012 at 10:14 AM

Windows 8 to come with free music, but no Zune

Microsoft finally is saying goodbye to the Zune brand for good.

But instead of cuing up a dirge, the company is marking the occasion by throwing a music party.

Starting Tuesday, the company is dropping the Zune brand from its digital music store and streaming service, which now will be referred to as Xbox Music.

Xbox Music also will be the default music player on Windows 8 PCs and tablets when they go on sale Oct. 26, taking the place of Microsoft’s trusty Windows Media Player.

Xbox Music_My Music.jpg

To sweeten the deal, Microsoft is providing free access to stream its entire music catalog on Windows 8 tablets and PCs.

“It will be the only tablet operating system that has free streaming of music,” said Yusuf Mehdi, head of strategy and marketing in Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment business.

Free access to the catalog, which has about 18 million songs in the U.S. and 30 million globally, will be unlimited for six months, after which Microsoft will taper down access and encourage people to start paying $10 per month for an ad-free version of the service.

To support the free service, brief ads will be played about every 15 minutes.

The ad-free version of the service is comparable to streaming services offered by companies such as Spotify and Rhapsody.

Xbox Music_Enter Artist.jpg

The audio quality of the paid service will be slightly higher — 256 kilobytes per second vs. 192 Kbps for the free version.

Xbox Music also includes a digital store, for downloading and buying music.

Like the Zune service, the Xbox Music service includes “smart playlists” that can automatically generate playlists around artists or genre.

Windows 8 users with Xbox Live premium subscriptions will be able to use “Smartglass” to play music selected on a tablet through a TV connected to an Xbox.

Microsoft launched Zune in 2006 — with Bill Gates appearing at a launch concert in Seattle’s Westlake Park — as a belated challenge to Apple’s iPod.

Last year, Microsoft discontinued Zune hardware but the brand continued on the Xbox and Windows Phone devices, where the company’s music and video store are called the Zune Marketplace.

The Xbox Music brand will begin rolling out with an upgrade to the Xbox console that begins Tuesday.

It will come to Windows 8 when it launches Oct. 26 and to Windows Phone devices with the new version of the platform that arrives Oct. 29.

Zune lives on in spirit, though. The bold interface design of the player and service were a major influence on the design of Windows Phone and Windows 8.

Here’s Gates at the Zune launch, in a 2006 photo by Ken Lambert, Times staff photographer:

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Here’s Microsoft’s comparison of Xbox music with other streaming music services:

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Comments | Topics: Bill Gates, Digital media, digital media

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