Too Zune? You Decide.

*Deep inhale*

Microsoft has introduced the Zune, their MP3 player designed to rival the iPod. There has been some skepticism, but I think overall people are waiting to see. The promise of wirelessly sharing your music sounds appealing and it is one of the features Microsoft is banking on. Microsoft thinks they can win.
There is a lot of punditry out there offering opinions on how the Zune will succeed or fail, most of it good. So why not, I’ll throw my hat in the ring and offer my opinion.

In order to beat, or even dent the iPod, the device is not the most important thing. Notice that Microsoft missed that by banking on the wireless aspect and the Zune interface. Both are good, but neither are paramount. In order to steal some wind from the iPod’s sails you need to defeat iTunes and that is a tall order. iTunes has the following going for it:

  1. Apple’s signature ease of use.
  2. Content.
  3. Price point. 99¢ per song is about what people are willing to pay.
  4. A DRM you can live with.
  5. No subscription service.

Further discussion after the jump.

So how does Zune music store stack up? On point one, it fails on the install. Read this person’s experience. That isn’t to say that it can’t get better, but from what I saw in the link, it is typical Microsoft installation and set up. iTunes isn’t like that. On the plus side, I did see at Gizmodo that the Zune application imports your non-purchased music from iTunes including ratings (but not play count) so that is pretty cool.
As far as point 2 goes, it is simply too early to tell. Zune’s music store needs time to grow. The iTunes Music Store didn’t start out with the same level of content it has today. I say we give Microsoft a pass on this one for a while to see if they can build the relationship with the music industry that Apple did. While Apple has more “cool clout”, Microsoft has more money and “business clout” so they might be able to woo or pressure labels into supporting them.

The third point is a bit dodgey for the Zune. Instead of straight dollars to songs transactions, they’re using Microsoft Points. I’m personally undecided as to how that is going work out. The negative side is that you probably have to purchase Microsoft Points in blocks whereas with it iTunes Music Store I buy a song and pay cash.

DRM is an issue no matter what. Some folks think that when you buy a CD you should be able to do what you want with it. That includes make a dozen copies for your friends. Record labels are not crazy about that idea and would rather have your friends buy their own. Apple’s DRM is not ideal but I think it is pretty good. I haven’t yet run into a DRM limitation on my music. I’m not sure about music you purchase from the Zune music store but I know that the DRM on shared music is too tight. Three plays or three days and then that’s it. I read somewhere that if you play 1 minute or 1/2 the song, whichever is shorter, it counts as a play. If that is any indication of the DRM for purchased music, this could be a show stopper for the Zune. I was going to say “it could spell doom for the Zune” but that would be kind of cheesy and I don’t go in for that.

Finally, it is my understanding that there is no subscription fee for the Zune music store. That’s a good thing as that issue has hamstrung other services. I don’t want to pay, say, 79¢ per song to download and then, say, $14.99 per month to listen. When I cancel my subscription, my library of purchased music dies. That isn’t how iTunes works and I prefer it that way.

No, I won’t be buying a Zune. My 3rd generation iPod is going just fine, though it might need a new battery. There are two other things that need to be said here, though. First, the Zune’s wireless sharing is cool (though limited, did I mention that you can’t sync it wirelessly, cause you can’t) but it isn’t the Achilles heel of the iPod. If Apple introduces a touch screen iPod with a larger screen and improved resolution, that could counter any effect the Zune might have on sales. The Zune has a slightly larger screen but it has the same resolution as the current iPod. The second thing is that Microsoft introduced the Zune in black, white and brown. Brown.

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