The most striking takeaway from a recent meeting I had with Xbox Music GM Jerry Johnson wasn't the Spotify-like service he was in New York City to show off, but rather what he said about a much larger internal change at Microsoft. Having been relegated to the world of video games for the past decade, Microsoft is opening up its Xbox branding to a larger world of media. "'Xbox' is actually going from thinking about gaming in a device to being the entertainment face for all of Microsoft," Johnson said -- a major change from the Xbox name's place as a stand-in for "the Halo and Gears of War box," trotted out once or twice annually by lower level execs from the Washington-based software giant. "That's what the company -- all the way up to Steve Ballmer -- have gotten behind. That's why you're gonna see movies on Windows 8 slates, you're gonna see music, and it's gonna be branded as 'Xbox.'," he explained. This naming convention carries to Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 RT as well -- all post-Windows 7 Microsoft devices (and Xbox 360) will refer to music and video libraries as "Xbox Music" and "Xbox Video," respectively.
But to many, that shift could be confusing. Isn't "Xbox" that thing in the living room? When "Xbox Music" shows up on Windows 8 devices later this month, will your average user understand that, no, they don't have to own an Xbox to listen to the music therein? Johnson's not worried about that potential reality. "The brand has continued to evolve," he argued. "I don't think it's left anything behind, I think it's broadened the number of people who engage in these type of experiences. And Microsoft as a company I think recognizes that, and it's more about Xbox meaning 'entertainment.'"
Xbox Music on Xbox 360See all photos
But I'm not so sure Johnson's right. Before "Xbox Music," there was "Zune Marketplace" -- while Zune (the hardware) was never anywhere near as successful as the Xbox brand is, the concept of tying the marketplace to a single product name seems confusing at best. In simple terms, when you see "Xbox Music" on your Windows 8 device, there's no context for "Xbox" meaning "entertainment." To many, "Xbox" means "video games." Johnson certainly understands this logic, as applied to the aforementioned Zune Marketplace.
"Labeling the Zune brand with the device is something that happened right out of the gate. And when I was over in Europe and they were bringing the Zune brand over to represent the delivery of content, the first thing people would ask is, 'Well, are you gonna sell a device?' And the Zune brand got associated with a device," he said. Given that, isn't that same risk apparent with Xbox Music? "We learned a lot of good things from Zune, but we also realized that it was a brand, and it was a product, that was clearly focused ... my playlist didn't go from my Zune device well, they weren't connected that well from the service as they should've been," Johnson admitted.
He also said, "It really informed what we're doing now" -- except it doesn't seem to be informing the main branding of the service. Sure, the Xbox is grander in scope than the Zune ever was -- over 50 percent of time spent on the Xbox 360 is with non-gaming applications, for instance -- but its primary function is still games, as it has been for the history of the brand. Johnson's hoping to change that perception. "We believe this is all part of that journey, where as people start to think about Microsoft and they think about entertainment -- whether it's gaming, music, television, movies -- 'Xbox' is what will be the face of that going forward for Microsoft."
Regardless, we'll see how it plays out in the coming months and years. The concept of unifying media across disparate Microsoft devices is a good one; whether or not people will actually engage that concept remains to be seen. And whether they'll even know such a thing is possible given the confusing naming convention adds another wrinkle to the still nascent initiative.