The grinches that stole Zune's Christmas

The grinches that stole Zune's Christmas

Summary: For the record, I have not been one of the lucky few to have laid their hands on Microsoft's new Zune iPod killer which is due to arrive on the US market tomorrow. But, judging by Google News, there are plenty of reviewers out there who have -- reviewers that as far as I can tell will turn out to be the grinches that stole Zune's Christmas.

TOPICS: Microsoft

For the record, I have not been one of the lucky few to have laid their hands on Microsoft's new Zune iPod killer which is due to arrive on the US market tomorrow. But, judging by Google News, there are plenty of reviewers out there who have -- reviewers that as far as I can tell will turn out to be the grinches that stole Zune's Christmas.  As the holiday shopping season starts to hit stride in the next couple of weeks, Microsoft is hoping to steal some of the iPod's thunder with Zune: a $250 portable digital media device that hopes to wow gear and gift buyers with four primary differentiators:

  • Wi-Fi connectivity to other Zunes. This would be for beaming audio, video, or still images, all of which are supported on Zune.
  • Via that Wi-Fi connection, the ability to share protected content for a limited period of time. If you buy a protected song from Microsoft's music store, you'll be able to beam it other Zune owners so they can sample it.
  • 1/2" more screen space. Versus the iPod's 2.5 inches, Zune's screen is inches.
  • an FM tuner
OK, so the FM tuner and the bigger screen don't necessarily differentiate Zune from some non-Apple offerings. But in Zune, Microsoft is trying to come up with a blend of features that makes it compelling against what Apple has to offer. So far, the most practical review I've seen came from Newsweek's Stephen Levy. Here are some highlights (see Tune into Zune: Microsoft takes aim at the iPod and misses for now):
  • [Apple is] a threat to Microsoft's grand vision of becoming the standard platform for all media software. [Reading between the lines: Actually, I think being the dominant player in the digital rights management space -- which Apple is -- makes the Cupertino-based company a far bigger threat to Microsoft than just in the media space]
  • [Zune is the same] price as the standard full-size iPod ($249), same storage capacity. (Microsoft has no answer yet to the jewel-like flash-memory-based iPod nano or the microscopic shuffle, two gadgets destined for glory this Christmas season). [Reading between the lines: Next Christmas, Microsoft will have caught up to the gear Apple had out last Christmas]
  • Zune isn't nearly as pretty as iPod, its skin is a surprisingly industrial looking plastic, available in black, white or a Soviet-issue brown. [Reading between the lines: It's ugly and lacks style (two things America's youth could care less about). But, on the bright side, it probably works with free music from that illegal Web site in Russia].
  • ...the jukebox software isn't nearly as convivial as iTunes [Reading between the lines: con?viv?i?al/k?n?v?vi?l/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[kuhn-viv-ee-uhl]: 2. fond of feasting, drinking, and merry company; jovial. Apple has apparently squeezed a Thanksgiving party into iTunes.]
  • ....the Zune Marketplace doesn't use money, one uses "points" which you buy a chunk at a time, like choice-deprived mine workers at a company store....why did it vary from the common-sense iTunes Store practice of using real money and debiting your credit card as you rack up your purchases?....[This makes it] easier for Microsoft to handle international currencies—though somehow Apple manages to do this without a problem. [Reading between the lines: The story of Microsoft's life (vs. Apple). When Microsoft figures out how to do this without a problem, Apple will have already figured out how to do something else important, without a problem).

And what about the Wi-Fi features? Levy had so much of import to say (most of it not very good) that cutting and pasting it here would have crossed the boundaries of fair use. But it's a must read that will leave you wondering how few people the Wi-Fi feature will matter to.

Then going back to the points system, we had a ZDNet reader who left a comment on my last story about Microsoft's ill-conceived publicity stunt to get artists more money out of Zune purchases (hint: there's so little transparency, the plan is hard to believe). The reader, who goes by the name of Len Rooney gave the details of what sounds like a ridiculously arcane system:

Apparently you have to buy $5 worth of MS points in order to buy that first 99 cent, or 78 Microsoft points, song. Microsoft hangs onto your money, making interest on it until you are ready to buy 4 more songs. Then you are left with only 5 cents that you can't spend on anything until you give MS another $5. Like everything else that comes out of MS, its overly complex and makes the customer jump though hoops simply to further enrich MS. Compare that system to iTunes: 1 song = 99 cents. Click, Buy, Done, Thank you.

Over at ITWire, Stan Beer gave me some of the comic relief I needed after going to Java school for the last few days. Wrote Beer of Zune:

Fancy building a player with wireless capability that can't even download music from your own music store or wirelessly connect to your home PC. I personally don't have a problem with putting a time limit or even number of plays restriction on shared music. However, what marketing genius decided that it was a good idea not to let users pass shared music around so that others could get to hear it as well?.......Zune cannot be used as an external hard drive. It is such an obvious deficiency, that one wonders if Microsoft's hardware division just had a bad day when they left that fundamental feature out or there is some technical issue yet to be resolved. If it's the latter, perhaps Microsoft should just grab any old music player from another manufacturer and see how they do it.

In a New York Times news story (note, not a review, registration required), Michel Marriot wrote:

[Microsoft corporate vice president for design and development J Allard] said Microsoft had made a decade-long commitment to investing in innovative ideas like those that produced the first Xbox in 2001 and the Zune — suited not only to the PC and the workplace, but also to people’s leisure time....."Technology will have a huge impact there," he said. "There is really a transition that is not only analog to digital, but digital to connected."

"Suited to the PC?" If the reports I'm reading are correct, it doesn't even connect to it wirelessly. "Technology will have a huge impact?" As I've said before, there's little Microsoft can do technologically that Apple can't match. Technology is simply the price of admission to this game. After that, it's all about fashion and style -- extremely unfamiliar territory for Microsoft. 

These and other stories make it clear that Microsoft is turning to the same formula, one where technology matters, that has gotten XBox as far along as it is today.  Even the points system used in Zune is the same as the one found with the XBox ecosystem (in fact, they're integral to each other). Some have argued that Microsoft's advantage over Apple in the gaming console business (Microsoft has XBox, Apple has nothing) is one that will contribute to long term victory because of the opportunities to integrate the two. But the two are for very different audiences. In his Newsweek coverage, Levy quotes Microsoft as citing compatibility with XBox as one of Zune's design constraints around the points system. Said Levy, "[it's] a consideration that music customers don't care about."  

Topic: Microsoft

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  • Other reviews

    Wall Street Journal here:

    NY Times here:

    ---These and other stories make it clear that Microsoft is turning to the same formula, one where technology matters, that has gotten XBox as far along as it is today.---

    Where is the Xbox today? Is it the market leader? Is it even profitable?
    tic swayback
    • No and No

      The PS2 has been the market leader for ages. And a week from now sony and nintendo are releasing more competition. In which case I think the Wii is going to become the #1 seller for this holiday season. The XBox is still sold for less than it cost to make, so MS needs to sell a whole lot of games in order to make a profit.
    • Where is Xbox today?

      You ask: Where is Xbox today?

      Much much further than Apple's pathetic effort ever got:


      • "Pathetic" or "Groundbreaking"

        So Apple released a disc-based computer/video gaming system in 1996? I'm sorry, 1996, right? Remind me of when Microsoft debuted the XBox again?

        Apple also introduced the first PDA, called the "Newton" years before Palm ever introduced the Palm Pilot PDA.

        As usual, Apple is light years ahead of the competition. And as usual, some numb nut buys the Microsoft ripoff and thinks it's a deal.

        Note: the answer to the question is: 2001. In other words, like the Zune ripping off the iPod, it took Microsoft 5 years to rip off the Pippin. Don't be a leming and buy the ripoff-- credit the original and get one of the many superior iPods out there.
        • Wow, the zealot is strong in you!!

          So according to you, Apple has invented:
          1. The first console system in 1996 (even though consoles have been around since the 70s/80s).
          2. The first PDA in 1992 (even though PDAs have been around since 70s).
          3. The first portable digital music player in 2001 (even though MP3 players have been around since 1999).

          While MS certainly wasn't first in these areas, they most definitely did [b]not[/b] copy Apple! Apple, as always, was a very late comer to the game and in most cases, their product [b]sucked[/b]. The only 2 good things Apple has ever released is the iPod and OSX and Apple didn't even write OSX, they stole it from BSD!

          PS Did you know that Apple was the [b]last[/b] computer company to release an OS that could do pre-emptive multitasking or had [b]any[/b] concept of restricted rights accounts? Until OSX, MacOS was always technically the [b]worst[/b] OS you could possibly use when compared to other OSs available at that point in time. OUCH!!
        • Another clueless Appleite...

          Quote from Wikipedia:
          [i]"The Amiga CD32 was one of the world's first 32-bit CD-ROM based game consoles. It was first announced at the Science Museum in London, United Kingdom on 16 July 1993 and released in September of the same year.[/i]

          And this is not end of the story. Atari released the Jaguar in 1993, and both Commodore (CDTV) and Philips (CD-i) had CD-based games consoles prior to that (1991).

          Apple invents nothing.
          • And even earlier...

            I remember playing Pong on a console made by Coleco in the late 70's. It didn't even have discs or cartridges... just Pong and a couple of other games that basically involved a white dot moving back and forth across the screen.

            And I wasted many, many hours playing Pitfall, Defender and Joust on an Atari 2600 console in the early 1980's.
            Hallowed are the Ori
          • The knee-jerk is strong in this one...

            Soft-o-phile [b]PeterWeter[/b] challenged:

            "[i]Where is Xbox today? Much much further than Apple's
            pathetic effort ever got[/i]"

            To which [b]gregvernon[/b] responded that Apple's Pipin
            predated XBox by 5 years or so. There was no claim that Apple
            developed the first game console, nor even that Apple invents
            anything. Only that they are "lightyears ahead of [their]

            I don't think any game console was a direct competitor to Apple.
            I also think Apple saw the light that game consoles were, for
            them, a dead-end.
            Fred Fredrickson
        • Apple light years behind

          The Sharp Data Wizard and the Psion Organizer were out before Newton, all Apple did was come up with the name "PDA", Newton was nothing new.

          Neither is iPod. Please tell me, what does iPod do that no other MP3 player did or will ever do?

          As you can see from this and other posts, Apple is ahead in outward design (and creating a buzz), but allway lagging in true innovation, it would seem..
          John Zern
      • Good answer

        ---Much much further than Apple's pathetic effort ever got:---

        So what you're saying is that the Xbox has achieved the level of slightly better than pathetic. Fair enough.
        tic swayback
      • What is it with you and the Pippen anyway?

        Was that ever actually released? I know it was a concept that Apple
        was working on but I can't remember if it ever made it too the
        market place or it died in development? If it was released it did not
        last long that is for sure.

        Pagan jim
    • I'd say it's poised to take the market leader

      Looks to me like Sony is dropping the ball and Microsoft is running in to pick it up. I have my doubts that Sony will remain king of the mountain in the console market. They are late with thier console, I mean the PS2 was out way before the first X-Box and already Microsoft has new X-Box out. Now Sony seems to plagued with problems when it comes to thier new console. The lastest issue with backwards compatibility will doom any possiblity of Sony maintain thier market as leader in the consoles. On top of that the price is about $200 more for the PS3 than for the current X-Box 360 which has more titles to purchase than the PS3.

      Microsoft has everything to gain here when it comes to the X-Box, thanks to Sony of course. I highly doubt that Apple will screw up with the IPOD and hand thier market over to Microsoft like Sony appears to be doing.

      And this comes from a guy who has a PS2 and was waiting for the PS3, now I'm thinking the X-Box 360 is looking better and better everyday.
      • Hugely different markets

        So what you're saying is that the Xbox has had, what, 5 years with no new competition, no new release from the former market leader, and yet it is still behind, and still not profitable? That doesn't bode well for the music player market where Apple releases a new model iPod every 6 months.
        tic swayback
        • 1 year

          I'm talking the X-Box 360, it's only been out for a year. It's had a year to get the bugs out. It's little cheaper. It has more titles. All this with no competition because the PS2 is not in competition with the X-Box 360. You can buy a PS2 and X-Box 360 for what it will cost you buy a PS3.

          What will kill the PS3 is bugs, shortages, lack of backwards compatibility, and DRM rumors. Remember the DRM rumor that said the games for the PS3 would be locked to the first console that played them. Do you really trust Sony? Might not be true today but then this corpoartion put root kits on people's PCs.

          Microsoft can do nothing but gain here. Sony can only scamble to keep what they have.
          • I was thinking lifetime...

            ...since everyone keeps telling me the Zune is a "long term" project.

            But I do think you're right, Sony has done nothing but shoot themselves in the foot as of late. Can't see Apple doing that.
            tic swayback
      • xbox is lacking

        The PS 3 is technically a superior product. The xbox lacks a "next
        gen" drive. Sure you can pay $200 for a HD-DVD drive to add on to
        your xbox 359, but then you'd need to add on things like a bigger
        hard drive (does the latest xbox support HDMI?). Personally I'd
        rather wait on the PS 3, than buy an xbox. If only to show i won't
        support the evil company called Microsoft.
        • Pick your Devil

          Sony or Microsoft neither are sqeeky clean in my mind. Personally I think Sony is the worse of the two. I know what I'm getting with Microsoft but with Sony who knows, root kit maybe?

          Maybe the Wii looks better and cheaper to boot. Nintendo also tends to have the fun games, maybe not the eye candy but eye candy often isn't fun, looks good tastes bad.
        • Another point

          Blu-Ray or HD-DVD, who cares? Both formats are dead formats. Think laser disc, that's what these formats are going to be.

          Adoption rates for these two techs will be so slow that something better, something that actually offers the consumer something will come along. I suspect a flash RAM format might be the winner, it at least would offer all that a DVD does with out the scratches and less shelf space used.

          Who's going to pay %50 more for content just to have it marginally better in HD. There was a huge jump between VHS and DVD but there is very little noticable difference with these new formats. I just saw the HD version of the 5th Element played side by side with the regular DVD on two toshiba 52" plasma screens at Future Shop. I didn't notice much of a difference, not enough to pay %50 more for HD-DVD to replace the DVD I already own.

          Laser Disc all over again that's what I think.
  • Could care less about?

    Quote: It's ugly and lacks style (two things America's youth could care less about).

    So.... they do care? Yeah. They do. And they know the iPod is cooler. And will (probably) soon trump the Zune feature-wise. And probably have better grammar.
    • If they don't already...

      Who wants to be someone will eventually figure out to make a wireless connectivity accessory for the iPod. (One that doesn't restrict like Zune).

      Zune is not an iPod killer.. It's just a product Microsoft is putting out because it can't stand losing.