Zune Doom

Published in TidBITS 855 (2006-11-13)


Zune Doom

by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>

It's easy for me to sit here and write that no sensible person will purchase a Microsoft Zune music player. However, hear me out. I don't make that statement because the iPod is the apotheosis of portable music players, because I think Microsoft can't produce hardware, or because I'm an all-purpose Microsoft basher.

Rather, Microsoft has made some particular choices that will irk buyers before they ever pick up a unit, or will drive those who are unaware of the limitations mildly crazy within days of purchase.

The Zune will launch on 14-Nov-06, be available in three colors, and bear a 30 GB hard drive. It will cost $250, the same as a comparable iPod. Unlike the iPod, however, the Zune will include a Wi-Fi transceiver and an FM receiver that uses the supplied earbuds as an antenna.

Why? Fie! Here's the part that will set every iPod owner laughing. The Wi-Fi cannot be used to synchronize music, nor can it be used to connect to the Internet to download music. It can be used only in peer-to-peer connections with other Zune owners with whom you choose to exchange music. USB is the only way to synchronize music.

In an article in today's New York Times, Microsoft's VP of Entertainment and Devices Bryan Lee is asked about the missing Internet download feature: "Would the Zune ever be able to connect to the Internet? Could someone walk into a Starbucks and use the connection there to download a song? Mr. Lee answered without hesitation: 'Probably, one day.'"

Also, let me add that music exchanged among Zunes will cease to play after three days or after it's been played three times. This includes music, podcasts, and other files that are specifically licensed for unlimited reproduction or trading, such as music distributed under a Creative Commons license that doesn't allow post-release encryption of the sort that Microsoft wraps around it for these transfers. The Zune software on the computer also doesn't offer any direct support for podcasts, including subscribing to them, although you can manually transfer them.

Don't just listen to me, however, as you pull yourself up off the floor, since I haven't actually touched a Zune yet. How about the opinions of the two leading mainstream computer columnists, David Pogue of the New York Times and Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal? They've had pre-release versions for testing, and they're not very complimentary.

Mossberg Praises, Then Buries -- Mossberg is the kinder of the two. He likes some of what the Zune offers and the iPod lacks, such as a built-in FM tuner, its larger screen, and the Wi-Fi music exchange feature. He also says the Zune correctly synchronizes music and other media files in a way that previous players using Microsoft technology did not. Mossberg even finds the interface easier to use in some respects than Apple's.

But that doesn't make up for a device that's "60% larger and 17% heavier than the comparable iPod," he notes, calling the design "rushed and incomplete." The battery life is poorer than the iPod's, too. The Zune's online store is much smaller than the iTunes Store, lacking TV shows, movies, and music videos, as well as audio books and podcasts.

Mossberg heaps particular scorn on the purchasing model for the online store, which is the same as Microsoft uses for its Xbox Live Marketplace. Microsoft Points are pegged at 80 points to the dollar: $5 buys you 400 points, or 500 points costs $6.25. Mossberg was irritated that you have to buy buckets of points in at least $5 increments; you can't just pay $0.99 via a credit card or other means to buy a $0.99 song, as you can with other stores. No, you have to pay $5 for 400 points and then use 79 points to purchase that song. I'm guessing Microsoft went with Points to tie in to an existing system that already supports worldwide purchase in local currency. The $15 per month subscription plan isn't being pushed, even though it's the gaping hole in Apple's music offerings.

While he doesn't go into depth as to why the Wi-Fi features are a problem, Mossberg writes, "[T]he wireless music-sharing feature on the Zune is heavily compromised, in a way that is bound to annoy the very audience it is targeting."

Pogue Slices and Dices -- David Pogue, a known admirer of Apple products and the iPod series, takes out an entire array of flensing knives to do his work. He spoke to a Zune product manager who essentially said that PlaysForSure is broken, which is something people outside Microsoft - including Real Networks - have been saying for some time. Pogue quotes the Zune group's Scott Erickson saying, "PlaysForSure works for some people, but it's not as easy as the Zune." (For more on these restrictions, see Geoff Duncan's article, "Of the Zune, DRM, and Universal Music," elsewhere in this issue.)

Pogue uncovers the Zune's fake scroll wheel, too, which isn't a scroll wheel at all: it's a round bezel that doesn't spin and isn't touch sensitive. Rather, it conceals four compass-point buttons.

But let's get to the Wi-Fi features. Pogue's tests show that you can send a song to another Zune user in about 15 seconds, and a photo in two seconds; video cannot be sent. Pogue states that "it's just so weird that Zunes can connect only to each other. Who'd build a Wi-Fi device that can't connect to a wireless network - to sync with your PC, for example? Nor to an Internet hot spot, to download music directly?"

Pogue also jumps up and down on the restrictions for music sharing. There's no way for you, as the owner or creator of a piece of music, to tag it to not expire after the three days or three plays. (Mossberg found in his pre-release version that some songs would stop after a few seconds or two plays, too, but Microsoft told him that's been fixed.)

Will Zune Bomb? Let me summarize. Zune players can't play PlaysForSure music that Windows owners already purchased. Music purchased for Zune won't play on any other device, despite Microsoft's long-stated criticism of that sort of policy. The Wi-Fi can't be used for synchronization or Internet downloads. Battery life is slightly worse than an iPod's. You cannot buy video content or audio books yet, and podcasts must be managed manually.

Now tell me: Can the Zune kill the iPod, or even erode its market share?

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