Zune: So Many Questions, So Few Answers

With the dust settling after Microsoft's Zune announcement last week, many questions remain--too many questions, in fact.

In case you weren't aware of its viral marketing campaign, Zune is Microsoft's latest attempt to seize the digital-media market from Apple, whose iPod devices and iTunes Music Store have captured both the imaginations and pocketbooks of the public.

The Zune product lineup consists of a first-generation portable media player (which plays music, photo slideshows, and video, although Microsoft will target music as the primary task for the first generation), a Zune online service, and various community-related features that will let Zune users interact.

From a marketing perspective, Zune differs from Apple's iPod in a few key areas. First, the device will include 802.11-based wireless-networking features so that Zune users can share music and other content. Second, Zune will eventually come in a variety of colors--and, presumably, form factors--although only white, black, and a unique brown color and one iPod-like form factor will be available this holiday season.

Doesn't sound very exciting, does it? It gets worse when you consider the downsides. Zune is missing the successful ecosystem that Apple spent years developing. Apple, by contrast, has millions of customers who have purchased iPods and who have purchased billions of songs from iTunes. Zune doesn't even include Microsoft's own PlaysForSure initiative: Zune devices won't work with other Windows Media-based online services such as Napster and MTV URGE. In short, it's another new initiative that's incompatible with the top two solutions on the market today.

Microsoft knows that the first-generation Zune won't take over the portable media player market. The company also knows that taking Apple down a notch is going to take several years and lots of product releases. And Microsoft has proven with products such as the Xbox that it's willing to spend the time and money necessary to make Zune successful. The question, of course, is whether the public will care. If Zune doesn't offer a distinct and obvious advantage over the iPod/iTunes hegemony, why would anyone buy it?

Furthermore, do we need yet another incompatible digital media solution? On the PC, Windows Media Player (WMP) comes with Windows. If you get an iPod, you need iTunes. Many PlaysForSure devices still include their own proprietary software. And now we have Zune: a new player, a new software interface, and a new online service. It won't play anything but the unprotected media files you either created yourself or ripped from a CD in MP3, Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), or Windows Media Audio (WMA) formats. (Yeah, it plays AAC. And MPEG-4 and H.264, for that matter. Weird.)

I've evaluated several portable media solutions lately from companies such as Apple, Creative Technology, and SanDisk. They all have advantages and disadvantages, of course. For Zune to truly matter, it needs to offer consumers the complete package, with no downsides. It needs to take my existing iTunes purchases and make them work, whether they're songs, TV shows, or movies. It needs to take the movies I've purchased from services such as Amazon.com and CinemaNow and make them work. It needs to take my Napster-bought songs and make them work. It needs to provide this functionality seamlessly and silently. And that's just the start.

The device itself needs to be better than the iPod. Not a little better--as evidenced by Zune's 3" color screen, compared with 2.5" iPod screen--a lot better. The services Zune offers need to be fast, fun, and effective, and they need to work all the time. Battery life has to rock; it can't be merely comparable. And the device has to be stylish, desirable, and beautiful. It has to make me look at the iPod as if it's yesterday's news.

Right now, Zune doesn't do any of that. Maybe it will in the future. But you know what? Apple won't stand still so that Zune can catch up. I don't understand what Microsoft is doing with Zune, because it doesn't appear to be much better than other portable media players, and it appears to be alienating Microsoft's existing partners in the portable media player space.

As a consumer, I don't think Zune seems very appealing, although I don't have one yet. As someone who's been watching the industry for more than a decade, Zune appears to be an oddly unilateral move from a company that has proudly touted its partnerships in the PC, video game, and digital media markets in the past. And as someone who, frankly, simply loves technology, Zune seems like a reaction, as opposed to a proactive and bold move.

TAGS: Windows 8
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