Zune ruminations

As I noted a few weeks back, I bought a Zune. I really should have bought a digital music playback device sooner, as it has injected new life into my CD collection.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

As I noted a few weeks back, I bought a Zune. I really should have bought a digital music playback device sooner, as it has injected new life into my CD collection. Having a music player with all your music on it is like having someone drop a huge collection of albums by bands you like a lot into your lap. My CD collection was in the 300 album range, which is far too many to remember what you have in your collection. Now that it is all categorized by genre in my Zune, I can find things the memories of which have faded with time, such such as old "Dead Can Dance" albums (I used to really be into the band), "The Toadies" spectacular "Rubberneck" album (that one has resulted in my driving way too fast down highway 10 a few times), or an album by a Dallas band named "Spot" the guitar player for which used to be in my class back in college.

There are some minor hiccups that I'm sure will be fixed shortly. I'm a fan of electronic music, and electronic music albums have a tendency to blend one song into the next. Unfortunately, the Zune puts a slight delay between songs, which might cause a bad dancer to suddenly find themselves out of tune with the music, fall against a side-rail in confusion and tumble over it into the parking lot outside (okay, that only happens sometimes). The Zune software sometimes got lost when transfering a lot of music to my device, something which was the case as I digitized my CD collection. Fortunately, the problem was easily resolved by unplugging the device and re-plugging it.

I like to play music in the car which means I don't know any of the LA radio stations, and fortunately, my Honda Element has a "Line In" jack into which I can plug my Zune (which is really a great stereo for a factory installed device), meaning I don't need to buy one of those radio frequency converters, at least, not immediately. The large screen on a Zune is very useful when hunting for an album.

As I was making a long drive back from San Bernardino county a few nights ago, however, thoughts turned to what my fantasy car stereo setup would look like. Though navigating around the UI in my Zune isn't that hard to do while driving (though I'm sure I'm not supposed to do that), it would be so much easier if I had a large screen on my car stereo, plus a large 8-track style slot into which I could plug my Zune. The Zune UI could be adapted for use in a car stereo for consistency (or it could be its own creation that just draws information from the device), and the album cover plus track details would be displayed on the screen. When I leave, I just pull the Zune out and take it with me.

Not revolutionary, and something which already exists. A friend of mine recently leased a very nice BMW which has an in-car computer plus integrated GPS device with a large screen that shows maps, among other things (haven't played with the media aspects yet). Further, a certain large hardware ecosystem created by a company with an apple logo already has stereos that interface with an iPod (though the only ones that have a slot for an iPod tend to be factory-integrated on premium cars).

So, that being the case, why didn't I get an iPod? Basically, I trust the Microsoft ecosystem more than Apple's. If Microsoft, which is still primarily a SOFTWARE company, were to be involved in the creation of such a radio that plugs in to its music player, the odds are a heck of a lot higher that the resulting combination would be programmable and extensible in ways an Apple-inspired creation wouldn't be.

I've said many nice things over the years about Apple, but one thing that will never appeal to me as a developer is Apple's tendency to force you to speak Japanese (figuratively speaking) in order program for their operating systems. "Thinking Different" might be a great way to create invidious distinction, but its a bad way to get developers who have a living to make to target your platform. The device story is even worse, as developer ecosystems aren't Apple's forte, and they have a penchant for keeping things closed (control makes stability easier, but shrinks software ecosystems).

And never mind backwards compatibility.  Apple has an ad where they depict a PC upgrading to Vista as a serially-uncool business guy going in for surgery.  Fine, so let's update this to make a proper analogy for the Apple upgrade process.  Look, Apple has a shiny new operating system that ditches the old architecture (and we all know how often THAT has happened).  How does Apple cool guy deal with the upgrade?  He shoots himself, counting on reincarnation to bring himself back from the dead as a newborn baby, because surgery simply isn't an option. 

Imagine what an Apple-inspired game console might look like. It would look great and probably cost a lot, but open platform for developers and hobbyists to drive a software ecosystem forward? Not even close.

I bought a Zune because I have experience of a Microsoft ecosystem that makes it easy for me as a software developer to customize. I don't envision a lot of Zune in-device customization, but if some smart person thinks of a reason for them to do that (making a device a music player first with extra functionality second might be a better approach than starting with a general purpose device a la Pocket PC and trying to make it useful as a music player), Microsoft will likely enable it, plus make use of the APIs very easy to do (wizards in Visual Studio, simulators, you name it). More important is the wider ecosystem of products that the Zune is likely to be a part of...which hopefully will include a car stereo with a large screen and an 8-track slot into which I can insert my Zune.

Microsoft has interesting stuff planned in the media space (not necessarily a super-car-stereo, but maybe). I wanted to experience that, so I bought a Zune.

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