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Zune 3 Review, Part 4: Zune Services

Microsoft supports its Zune customers with a surprisingly rich array of services, which include a unique online community called Zune Social, an online store called Zune Marketplace, and a subscription music service called Zune Pass. We'll examine each of these services in this fourth and final part of my Zune 3 review.

Zune Social

Analogous to the My Xbox membership that Microsoft provides for users of its video game consoles, the Zune Social is an online music community in which you get a Zune Card (in Xbox parlance, a Gamertag), which is your public face, as Microsoft puts it, in the community. The Zune Card appears in the Zune PC Software and on the Web. And you can customize it with your own picture (as you can with a Gamertag). It also tracks the music you listen to, just as your Gamertag keeps track of the games you play. Microsoft has even brought over the Xbox Achievements scheme to the Zune with something called badges. These badges denote when people listen to certain groups a lot and other music-related "achievements."

Microsoft has worked its Zune Social service into the fabric of the Zune ecosystem slowly, starting with a Web-only version that accompanied Zune 2.0 (see my review) and then integrating that directly into the PC software and device, finally, in Zune 2.5 (see my review). With Zune 3, the Zune Social is now a first class citizen on the Web, in the PC software, and on the device. It's nicely integrated across the board.

With over 2 million members in the Social now, the service has achieved a certain mass that makes its music discovery features all the more useful. And of course, integrating Zune Social into the PC software and Zune devices makes a big difference, because now the Zune Social is a primary component of the Zune experience, not something that feels tacked on, as was originally the case.

Most people will interact with the Zune Social almost solely through the PC software interface now. There is a top-level "social" menu there, next to "collection" and "marketplace," so this should give some clue to its importance. From within this interface, there are three sub-menu items: friends, me, and inbox. Friends displays the Zune Cards of your friends in a grid, so you can see what music they've been listening to, as well as whatever other information they've customized on their cards.

You can, of course, dig deeper as well. If you click on a Zune Card, you'll see a complete list of that contact's listening habits, identical to the view you receive when you choose the "me" sub-menu item, discussed below. But this represents one level of music discovery. You can see what friends are listening to, what they listen to most often, what their favorite songs are, and so on. If that content is available from Zune Marketplace, you can buy it. And if you have a Zune Pass subscription, you can download it right then and there, a better option for those seeking to find new music.

If you click the "me" sub-menu, you can examine and configure your own face to the Zune Community. Here, you'll see your own Zune Card, links to edit your profile and account (both, nicely, from within the application), and separate lists for your recent song plays, favorite songs (configured manually, and you can only have 8), top artists (automatically provided based on plays), badges, and "about me," in which you can type in some short autobiographical info if you have no life.

(What you can't do from this interface, unfortunately, is change your Zune Card in any meaningful way. To do that, you still need to visit Zune Social on the Web. There, you can change the background image used on the card, the picture used to represent you, and some other information. )

The inbox sub-menu provides you with an email-like inbox full of the messages and friend requests you've received via Zune Social. What's weird about this, sort of, is that these messages exist outside of the Hotmail email account you have separately configured but not from the Xbox Live-based inbox you may have also configured if you're a video game player. So it's possible, in effect, to have at least three different message inboxes all tied to the same Windows Live ID. It seems odd that these haven't been more fully integrated, but you can, in fact, see Xbox messages from within Zune and vice versa. (One new feature suggests more integration is coming: If you access Zune Social on the Web, you can actually interact with your Windows Live Contacts, which you typically access via Hotmail or Messenger, in limited ways. You can, for example, add them as Zune friends.)

In any event, you won't spend a lot of time in the Zune inbox, but people have sent me entire album recommendations using this system, and because I'm currently using Zune Social, the messages actually have links to download the entire album and individual songs. That's pretty cool.

Microsoft added Zune Social device integration previously with 2.5, and it works as before: You can choose to sync individual friends with your device, which is a curious action. As always, this is more useful when you're on a Zune Pass because you can stream music your friends are listening to. Those without the Zune Pass can choose to later purchase songs instead.

Zune Marketplace

It's impossible to evaluate Microsoft's online music and video store, Zune Marketplace, without comparing it to Apple's iTunes Store. Two things become immediately clear. First, the iTunes Store offers dramatically more content than does the Zune Marketplace. Second, the iTunes Store is also a mess, and most of its vaunted content is superfluous for most users.

Zune Marketplace, by comparison, is a smaller place, but there's still plenty of content there, assuming you're only concerned about music. Like iTunes Store, Zune Marketplace offers a confusing mix of protected and unprotected music, but Microsoft's selection of unprotected songs is vastly superior to what Apple offers. There's more of it, for starters. And it's in the far more compatible and desirable MP3 audio format.

That said, it's hard to find MP3 music in Zune Marketplace. You can't filter the view to only show the store's unprotected offerings, for example. So you pretty much have to browse around and hope that what you want is available in MP3. That's silly, and stores like Amazon MP3, which offer only unprotected songs, remain a better choice for music buyers. (That's true for iPod fans as well, of course.)

The protected music sold through Zune Marketplace comes in Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, and while that's hardly desirable, it does at least work with a variety of Microsoft-oriented software solutions, including Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center. And it's superior to the protected music sold by Apple because of its higher quality and better compatibility. (Regardless, I strongly recommend avoiding protected music of all kinds when purchasing.)

Aesthetically, Zune Marketplace is a decent but not exceptional experience. You access the store through the Zune PC software, as always. But unlike the Collection and Social experiences in the player, the Zune Marketplace is curiously hard-coded the left-most 865 pixels of the application window, something that looks odd on high-resolution displays. (iTunes Store, by comparison, fills the available space in the iTunes application window.)

Zune Marketplace does benefit somewhat from its sharp focus on music. Yes, you can download some music videos if you want, and podcasts, and Microsoft added TV show purchasing earlier this year. But Zune Marketplace is still primarily a music store, and it's far simpler and less busy than Apple's offering. New Zune 3.0 features like Picks and Channels, which we discussed in the previous part of this review, make Zune's music discoverability functionality much more obvious and engaging than anything Apple offers as well.

Of course, Apple's store offers a much wider range of content, especially if you have an iPod touch or iPhone. And as noted previously, music lovers are better purchasing from Amazon MP3. Overall, it's hard to be impressed by Zune Marketplace. With one exception...

Zune Pass

I've believed for some time that subscription services are the future of the music industry. Of course, existing subscription services like Napster To Go and Rhapsody can hardly be described as successful. So what's gone wrong?

First, existing subscription services are simply too expensive. I think that $9.99 a month--with price reductions for those who choose to pay for 3, 6, or 12 month blocks at once--is the magic price point, and thus far, none of the music subscription players have hit that figure. Second, the only company that has the market share to make subscriptions successful, Apple, has such a bad relationship with the recording industry that music companies will never license their content to Apple for such a service. (Apple has long been rumored to be plotting a subscription iTunes service. I'm pretty sure the only reason it hasn't happened is because of its bullying tactics.)

Microsoft has offered a Zune Pass subscription service since the first Zune appeared in late 2006, and it suffers from some of the same issues that dog competing services. At $14.95 a month with no discounts, it's too expensive. And it doesn't encompass all of the music content in Zune Marketplace, thanks to licensing silliness.

That said, Zune Pass is well-conceived, and if you're still at the point where you are actively discovering new music, you should seriously consider giving it a shot. Zune Pass content can be synced with up to 3 PCs and 3 Zune devices, opening up the possibility of sharing the cost with a spouse or even a close friend. And when you consider the cost of a full digital album--typically about $10 a pop--it's not hard to do the math on when this service starts paying for itself. (You know, sort of.)

What's amazing about Zune Pass is how it liberates your music experience. Instead of 30 second samples, you can stream entire songs when browsing the Zune Marketplace. If you discover a new group or, as I often do, rediscover an old one, you can suddenly just download all or most of whatever albums Microsoft does offer by that artist. Not worrying about the cost of individual tracks or albums frees you to experiment more. And if you don't like something, no problem. You didn't buy it anyway.

Now, the common complaints about music subscription services all apply to Zune Pass. You're renting music, not buying it. But that's true of the TV shows and movies you movies you're paying big bucks to watch via your cable provider, and its true of that fancy new car you just leased. Yes, there will always be music you'll want to "own," I suppose. But there's a lot more music out there that you won't ever want to buy. And if you're still building a music library, buying music is an expensive way to discover music you don't like.

Zune Pass isn't for everyone. But I can credit it with reawakening a desire within myself to find new music, something I didn't would ever happen again. Yes, I've gone to the well of my musical past a lot as well. But thanks to Zune Pass and the music discovery features of the Zune platform, I've begun finding new music a frequency that hasn't been the case in decades. Apple has nothing like it. And that makes the entire iTunes/iPod ecosystem less valuable to me and, I think, to music lovers. It's a real advantage for the Zune.

Final thoughts

At its heart, the Zune is a Microsoft experiment in copying Apple's digital media ecosystem. But Zune is at its most successful when you consider the unique and innovative functionality that isn't available with iTunes or the iPod. The PC software, like iTunes, is a strange and non-standard application that doesn't use a single standard system widget. But it runs faster than iTunes and is a prettier and less clinical-looking application. The Zune devices all offer integrated FM radio functionality, unlike any iPod, and with the Zune 3 firmware, you can now purchase music you hear on the radio. Both Apple and Microsoft implemented new music discoverability features in their latest software, but only Zune's features are fun and useful. And Zune offers a compelling community of music lovers you can interact with, making it easier than ever to share your music tastes and discover the likes and dislikes of others. With the iPod and iTunes, it's Apple that knows best. As always.

Where Apple does come out ahead, of course, is with the sheer scope of the iTunes/iPod ecosystem. There are far more devices and device types, and much more content for sale and rent via the iTunes Store. Apple offers many more TV shows and a growing library of movies, some of which are becoming available in HD. And Apple has extended its ecosystem to the iPhone, which is arguably the most important mobile device of the past decade.

Ultimately, what Microsoft has in the Zune is a superior experience for music lovers. If you're more concerned about some of the iPod's other capabilities, like games and movies especially, the Zune won't be as interesting. But if you're all about the music--and most portable media device owners are--the Zune is suddenly the place to be. No, it's not perfect. And no, it doesn't do everything some iPods can do. But what the Zune does do, it does well. And for music fans, Zune is now the superior platform, and it gets better the more you engage with all of its features and functionality. Highly recommended.

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