Zune - "iPod killer" or "killed by iPod"

Yesterday Microsoft released more details on their upcoming Zune player, the mobile device that it hopes will compete head to head again Apple's iPod. Does it have what it takes to be an iPod killer or will it get slaughtered like all the other contenders?

Yesterday Microsoft released more details on their upcoming Zune player, the mobile device that it hopes will compete head to head against (and beat) Apple's iPod.  But does the Zune have what it takes to be an iPod killer or will it get slaughtered like all the previous contenders?

There's little doubt in my mind that Microsoft's decision to release details about the Zune were partly as a result of Apple's unveiling of the new and updated iPod line.  Microsoft is in direct competition with Apple and this is the first in what will probably be a long line of PR broadsides between the two companies.

But does the Zune have what it takes to be an iPod killer?  Before I give you my opinion, let's take a look at the specification of the Zune:

  • 30GB capacity
  • 3 inch color screen (works portrait and landscape)
  • Wireless capability
  • Built-in FM tuner
  • Compatible with unprotected WMA, MP3, AAC; photos in JPEG; and videos in WMV, MPEG-4, H.264
  • Three colors: black, while and brown
  • Zune accessories

There are a few highlights there, but not many.  Support for AAC and MPEG-4 is good and the wireless capability is certainly a novelty, but in all other respects the Zune is inferior to the latest iPods to come out from Apple.  This means that price is going to be an issue.

While on the subject of price, it's interesting that Microsoft didn't release any pricing information yesterday.  That was a bad move.  If the price was right, Microsoft could have taken the wind out of Apple's sails, but as things stand the media is now left with only one question to ask: "how much will this inferior gadget cost?"

There are plenty of other strikes against the Zune.  Here are just a few:

  • No price!
  • The Zune is not cross-platform, so it won’t connect to a Mac
  • Yet another closed system
  • More software to install on the PC
  • No podcast management system
  • Dubious battery life
  • Not many accessories

I could go on.  The point I'm making is that the advantages seem to have evaporated and there's nothing about the Zune that makes me go "cool" any more.  The whole wireless Zune-to-Zune content sharing system is interesting from a technical standpoint but it's not something that I'd see myself using.  Now if Microsoft had come out with a player that had 100GB capacity and a built-in phone, things would be different.  But rather than be innovative, the Zune is just a slightly modified and re-badged Toshiba Gigabeat.

Even the box is lackluster and boring compared to the iPod. 

Zune packaging


iPod  packaging

See what I mean?  Unless you happen to know what a Zune is, there's no clue for you on the box.  That might work if the Zune had a strong brand, but right now it doesn't mean much at all.  I'm assuming that Microsoft’s  plan is to spend a lot of dollars on advertising.

I'm not doing to rule out the Zune as a future iPod killer (the iPod's market share has declined as of late, from over 80% to just over 70%, so that might be an indication that the tide is turning), but in the first-generation incarnation I don't see it making much of a dent because there's not enough about it that elevates it above the iPod.  So, no, the Zune we’ll be seeing over the Holidays this year is no iPod killer.

Now, add a phone, and Microsoft might be onto something ...

[Updated: September 15, 2006 @ 2:29 pm]

There's a story on Slashdot about the Zune and how Zune's "viral DRM" violates Creative Commons licenses.  My understanding from all the press releases and info on the Zune is that (and I'm checking this with Microsoft) Creative Commons music cannot be shared using the Zune, only music downloaded from the Microsoft store and marked as being sharable.  Ripped music or music downloaded from other sources cannot be shared.


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