Zune, you, and the future of music

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So much has been written about Microsoft’s digital music player, the Zune. Why devote such a massive number of electrons to such an apparently uninspiring product ? Microsoft, of course. Were the Zune slapped with any other company’s moniker it would be just another “iPod Killer,” garnering its sensational press one week, deflated by hands-on reviews the next, and ending its short life on the ever-increasing pile of iPod wannabes.

But it is Microsoft and there are enough important differences in the Zune ecosystem that this “iPod Killer” matters. No, not because of its sharing feature or its wide screen or its larger size or its FM radio or the fact that you can get it in brown, if you like.

If you like.

Perhaps the difference can best be summed up this way.

iTunes = Passionate record store employees a la High Fidelity.

Zune = Landlord of the property occupied by that record store.

I recognize that Apple is a business like any other. It’s interested in turning big profits and it’s done so with the iPod/iTunes one-two punch. But looking at what Apple has done with the iPod and the iTunes Store, it’s clear that a goodly number of people at Apple who matter have a passion for music. Put these people in a time machine, transport them behind the counter of a late-70s record store, and you just know they’d steer a trusted customer away from Tusk because, “Man, this just sucks.”

Microsoft? It’s not the music. It’s not the social. It’s the money.

And to get that money, Microsoft is willing to cozy up to the Universal Music Group, giving them a taste (over a dollar per unit) of every Zune sold in addition to the usual royalty from music sold by Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace. Universal’s CEO Doug Morris must be a happy man as he’s not a particular fan of the iPod. Says Morris, “These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it. So it’s time to get paid for it.”

And what other sacrifices at the altar of choice do you suppose Microsoft is willing to make? The end of one-price-fits-all downloads? More onerous restrictions on the music you purchase electronically? Music that can be purchased only in album form rather than piecemeal?

Why not? The music industry feels it’s been screwed by Apple. They want variable pricing but they don’t have the leverage to get it. They want more control about where their music can be played yet while Apple accedes to copy protecting the music it sells, its DRM is nowhere near as restrictive as the music industry would like. They would like you to follow the CD model and buy music by the album rather than by the track.

Currently Apple has the power to say “No, thank you, this works better for our customers.”

Give Microsoft that power and what do you get?

Tusk , yeah it’s really great. You want the LP or cassette?”

This story, "Zune, you, and the future of music" was originally published by PCWorld.

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