I’ve had the Zune for a little over a week and in that time have offered my views on the
software and syncing, and
Zune Marketplace. With this final entry in the Zune Diary I’d like to fill in a few missing gaps and offer some final thoughts.
Scan my previous stories and you find barely a mention of the Zune’s marquee feature—its file sharing or “squirting.” I haven’t been able to test the feature because I have a single Zune and it requires two Zunes to share files. Regrettably, Zunes are a rare enough commodity that I couldn’t locate another person to “squirt” with. I suspect current and near-future Zune owners will have the same problem. “Welcome to the Social” is a fine little catch phrase, but it rings hollow when you’re the only one in the county with a Zune.
So instead, let’s look at what squirting offers. To protect the rights of musicians and the companies that represent them, tracks squirted between Zunes are limited. They can be played up to three times and expire after three days. Some have criticized this limit as too restrictive. I don’t have a problem with it. I recall spending many hours of my youth hanging out with friends and listening to music in their collections. At the end of those sessions I didn’t get to take a copy of that music home, nor did I expect to. What I got out of it was an idea of what I might like to acquire or avoid the next time I visited the record store. Squirting offers the same kind of experience.
I understand that not being able to keep music passed to you for ever and ever seems archaic in days when pirating music is about as offensive as jaywalking, but Microsoft (and anyone else in the music player business, for that matter) has to protect content. Fail to do so and your content deals with the music industry fly out the window.
But the Zune’s protection plan goes too far. Not only does it wrap purchased music in this expiring digital rights management scheme, it wraps everything in it. If I’ve recorded an album, created a ring tone, or downloaded a podcast, and want to squirt it to a friend, that bit of audio inherits the three play/three day limitation. The iPod’s limits on protected content is the better balance. Purchase a track from the iTunes Store and it plays only on computers authorized to play it (as well as any iPods synced to that computer). If Microsoft wants to protect the music it sells, fine. But leave the rest of the Zune’s content alone. There are far easier ways to pirate and share music than squirting it from one Zune to another.
Travel to the iTunes Store, access the Podcasts section, search under “Microsoft,” and you’ll find that the iTunes Store carries 163 podcasts that are somehow linked to the Redmond behemoth. Given that, you’d think that the Zune team might have heard about these new-fangled podcast thingamabobs. Visit the Zune Marketplace and you’d never know so. No podcasts are offered.
Oh sure, you can use any number of Windows clients to acquire podcasts and then import them into the Zune software, but didn’t we give up on that kind of thing a couple of years ago? The Zune is a portable audio player. People routinely listen to podcasts on portable audio players. Yet the Zune software and Marketplace don’t make it easy to lay hands on those podcasts. If you want to compete with the iPod and iTunes, at least offer some of their basic functionality.
Speaking of basic functionality, what else does iPod/iTunes offer that the Zune lacks?
Contacts and calendars, the ability to use the player as a removable drive, audiobook support, alarm clock, games, notes, clock and stopwatch, screen lock, photo transfer (with accessory), voice recording (with accessory), Sound Check, volume limit, gapless playback, fades, Party Shuffle, iMix, gift certificates, allowances, videos for sale, artist alerts, burning MP3 CDs, shared libraries, parental controls.
Oh, and style.
And what does the Zune have that iPod/iTunes lacks?
Squirting, FM radio, larger screen, horizontal view of pictures and videos, music subscription service.
And, of course, brown.
Support for Zune
Given the Zune’s generally terrible reviews, who’s buying and promoting the thing? Read the comments appended to early online Zune reviews and you’ll find that there are people in the world who hate Apple in general and the iPod specifically. This is a natural consequence of any product that gains the kind of popularity enjoyed by the iPod. People just get sick of hearing about it—particularly so if they’re told they’re not hip for not owning one.
The Zune did reasonably well at outlets such as Amazon because some iPod-haters are willing to vote with their pocketbooks and purchase a Zune out of spite. If the Zune is little more than the anti-iPod we should see a continuing downward sales trend for the Zune—eventually the market will absorb those willing to put their money where their mouth is.
Now try this: Enter “Zune” in your Google search field and note the number of websites with Zune in their name. These are the people hoping against hope that the Zune is a success and that their Zune-centric site will pay off as the place to visit for Zune information. A combination of hard work and an attractive product can mean big advertising bucks for you and your site. If you run one of these sites it’s in your interest to promote the Zune wherever you can. For example, during the Zune’s first week of release our forums were spammed time and again by “visitors” promoting a particular Zune site—
astroturfing at its most despicable.
But it would be unfair of me to paint every Zune site with this broad brush. Not all are full of Zune “happy talk.” A couple, for example, have linked to every installment of this hardly-Zune-loving diary. (Thanks, fellas, I appreciate the links and best of luck, but don’t quit your day jobs.)
And then there’s the music industry. Microsoft has cut a deal with Universal Music that gives Universal over a dollar from every Zune sold. Universal believes that because its music is being acquired illegally and played on devices such as the iPod and Zune, it is entitled to tax music players.
But wait, there’s more money to be made. The Zune Marketplace uses its Points currency to hide the fact that it charges more for some albums than does the iTunes Store. One might assume that these higher album prices translate into greater profit for the music companies. Universal (and, presumably, other record companies) would like to see these kinds of changes brought to the iPod and iTunes Store. Currently, they have little leverage as iTunes and the iPod remain the only game in town. However, if Microsoft succeeds, the music companies have the option to threaten Apple with taking their ball and playing elsewhere. If I were in charge of a record company’s bottom line, I’d do everything I could to promote the Zune.
And, obviously, there’s Microsoft. Can you imagine any other company whose corporate culture would allow it to release such a flawed product? What do you suppose would happen to an auto company that produced a car with no steering wheel or seats that spontaneously exploded after three uses or three days? Heads would (and should) roll. At Microsoft? Nothing. Instead, the company claims to be happy with the device and insists that it will sell
1 million units by July of next year. Unless Microsoft quickly turns this product around in a big way or starts tossing Zunes into boxes of breakfast cereal, even this modest estimate suggests to me that not enough people at Microsoft have taken the time to actually use the Zune.
The final summary
Seen from afar the Zune has mounds of potential. It offers a screen bigger than the iPod (and one that can be viewed horizontally as well as vertically), it features a unique system for sharing files wirelessly, and you can choose to fill it from a library of millions of tracks if you opt for the Zune Marketplace’s subscription service. Get a little closer, however, and you discover a product and ecosystem akin to the main thoroughfare of a Hollywood movie set. The buildings seem to be there, but look behind their faces and you find half-finished, rickety structures held together by two-by-fours, wire, and duct tape.
Welcome to the disgraceful.