11/15/06

Dean's take on Microsoft's new Zune

The Microsoft Zune is the newest portable media player on the block,
and the reason for its existence -- beyond Microsoft's envy of Apple's
iPod business -- is sharing.

But a single feature can't overcome the massive momentum behind the iPod.

Microsoft has taken a major step with the Zune, but it's no iPod
killer. Overall, Microsoft has created a good music experience, but
the Zune seems unfinished and consumers are better off waiting for
future versions.

If you buy a Zune now, you're betting that Microsoft will be
competitive with Apple for years to come, since a library of music and
video collections isn't likely to work on both devices. The irony is
that if you bet on Microsoft, you'll be upholding the cause of
competition against the near-monopoly of the Cupertino empire.

Microsoft has tried to distinguish its first model of the Zune family
from Apple's iPod with built-in wireless networking. You can't share
songs wirelessly with Apple's devices. The problem is finding other
Zune owners. For my testing purposes, Microsoft solved that problem by
sending two Zunes, a black version and a brown one.

Sharing a song is easy and it can ``spark a conversation,'' says Zune
product manager Matt Jubelirer. Within a couple minutes of charging my
two Zune players, I was sharing a song. But it's not a lasting
relationship. Each song you share lasts for only three plays or three
days on your friend's Zune.

And if you share a song with a friend, you can never share that same
song with that friend again. To me that is a lame concession to the
music studios, not the rights of users. If you think of all the things
that Microsoft could have done with wireless networking, Zune
disappoints. For instance, you can't surf the Web, or act like a DJ so
your friends can listen simultaneously to the same song you're
playing. And the Zune won't wirelessly synchronize with your PC. It
has to be connected by a USB cable.

The good display adds to the experience. When you play music, the Zune
shows the cover of the album. At $249, the Zune with a 30-gigabyte
hard disk drive (enough for 7,500 songs or 100 hours of video) goes
head-to-head with a 30-gigabyte version of the iPod, but it features a
bigger 3-inch screen (versus vs. 2.5 inches). The Zune also has an FM
radio -- a $50 accessory on the iPod -- which allows you to set the
Zune to your favorite stations.

On the downside, the Zune is heavier and larger than the equivalent
iPod. That's a consequence of Microsoft's choices. Going wireless and
using a bigger color screen adds bulk. Stick it in your pocket and its
5.6-ounces will make your shirt sag.

Microsoft says the battery life is 14 hours with the wireless
networking turned off, and about 13 hours with the wireless on.
Running video, the Zune can last for four hours.

The advantages of Apple's momentum are evident in other ways.
Microsoft's Zune Marketplace has 2 million songs versus Apple's
3.5-million song iTunes Web site. Microsoft is also playing catch-up
with iTunes in providing TV shows, movies, music videos, audio books
and podcasts. And there are only dozens of accessories for the Zune,
compared to 3,000 for the iPod.

To buy songs, you spend points that you must purchase in $5
increments, a system that is similar to the e-commerce model on the
Xbox 360 but annoying compared to the convenience of using your credit
card to buy songs on iTunes for 99 cents. Deceptively, Microsoft sells
its songs for 79 points, but it costs you 99 cents to accumulate that
many points. For unlimited songs, subscriptions cost $15 a month.

Zune represents a sharp departure in Microsoft's music strategy, which
hasn't been working. Microsoft had been cooperating with a variety of
partners with its PlaysForSure music program, where it provided
software to other companies that built music hardware and downloading
services. Microsoft isn't abandoning that program entirely, but Zune
doesn't use it.

Microsoft's Zune has a circular control pad that looks like the iPod's
click wheel. But it isn't touch-sensitive like the iPod wheel is.
Rather, it is a four-way navigation pad that requires the user to
click on the various edges of the wheel to scroll in different
directions. This kind of navigation can be just as fast as an iPod,
and it seems more accurate as well. I was able to navigate while not
even looking at the display.

You can play a slide show of your pictures. As the slide show kicks
in, you turn the Zune sideways so that you can see the show
horizontally. When you click to end the slide show, the screen
automatically shifts back to vertical presentation.

Microsoft concedes that it started work on the Zune just a year ago.
That's why it has an unfinished feel. But the Redmond, Wash., company
contends it will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Zune over
the coming years. Apple shouldn't be complacent. Microsoft is using
the same gradual takeover game plan as it has with Windows, Office,
Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player and most recently, the Xbox.

If you're feeling charitable toward the world's largest software
company and are worried about the coming hegemony of Apple Computer,
then by all means spend your money on Zune. The rest of us can wait
until Microsoft comes out with versions 2.0 or 3.0

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