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:
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."