The grinches that stole Zune's Christmas

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.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

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."  

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