Zuner or later, Microsoft will get it right


Shane Shellenbarger

Picture if you will a group of hardware and software technicians listening intently as upper management gives them the following directive: build an iPod-killer. The technicians retreat to their respective laboratories (cubicles), laboring from dusk till dawn, day after day, fueled by their passion (or Pepsi, Coke, Starbucks, and Red Bull) to produce a superior product, a product they themselves have yearned for, a product that will topple Apple from the 70% market share-mountain it has built from the sale of iPods. Then one day the technicians emerge from their dark lairs, unveiling the fruit of their labors, and they call it ZUNE.

Since Microsoft’s Zune is going head-to-head with Apple’s iPod, let’s compare their features. The Japanese company, Toshiba, manufactures the Zune and the Chinese company, Inventec, produces the iPod. Each comes in a 30 Gigabyte size, the Zune for $249.99 and the iPod for $249.00, roughly $8.34 per gig. Apple also offers an 80 Gig version for $349.00, or about $4.36 per gig. The Zune comes in black, white, and the very collectable brown while the iPod is available in black and white. The Zune is 4.4 inches high, 2.4 inches wide, 0.58 inches deep, and weighs 5.6 ounces. The iPod is 4.1 high, 2.4 inches wide, 0.43 inches deep, and weighs 4.8 ounces. The 80GB iPod is 4.1” H, 2.4” W, 0.55” D, and weighs 5.5 ounces.

The audio formats include Windows Media Audio, MP3, and AAC. The iPod plays AAC, MP3, Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF, and WAV.

As for video, the Zune plays
WMVideo, H.264, and MPEG-4 while the iPod plays H.264, M4v, MP4, MOV, and MPEG-4. The iPod has a 2.5-inch (diagonal) QVGA transflective, over 65,000-color liquid crystal display with white LED backlight at a 320 x 240 in resolution. The Zune has a 3-inch screen at 320 x 240 in resolution with portrait and landscape viewing. The Zune supports JPEG images while the iPod supports JPEG and BMP.

Currently, Zune does not work with Macs Operating System or Microsoft’s OS Windows Vista (!), and it does not natively support podcasts, although you can use such software as Doppler, iPodderX, Juice, WinAmp, and TvTonic to retrieve podcasts and then sync the Zune to the downloaded audio file. The Zune has built-in FM radio reception, while the iPod requires a separate accessory. The Zune control disc is not a touch-sensitive wheel as on the iPod, but is instead a 5-position tactile click controller. Both players use a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Early reports put the battery life for the Zune at 11-12 hours of audio playback, with the video playback length yet unknown. The 30GB iPod has 14 hours of audio playback and 3 ½ hours for video, the 80GB iPod has 20 hours of audio and 5 ½ hours of video playback.

Both the Zune and the iPod connect to a computer using USB 2.0, and the Zune is 802.11b/g Wifi enabled. The Zune Wifi is crippled in that it cannot be used to surf the Internet, it cannot be used to connect to the Zune Marketplace, it can only be used to “squirt” songs among other Zune uses within range. If you are in range or in a Wifi-enabled area and your Zune shows other Zunes with songs you may want you need to seek out the owners, ask them to send you a song, accept the song when they send it, and then the song is only available to play for three times or three days, whichever comes first. Can Microsoft add any more barriers to usage? Yes, they can! The Zune Marketplace requires you to buy “Zune Points” in $5.00 blocks, with 79 points equal to 99 cents, thereby attempting to make the customer think they are getting more for less. For $14.99 per month, you can buy a Zune Pass, an “all-you-can-eat” subscription service similar to Napster or Rhapsody is available, and if you have audio from those other services or iTunes forget about playing them on the Zune. The Zune will not play any material that contains digital rights management (DRM) other than its own. DRM protects material downloaded from the Zune Marketplace, including material “squirted” between Zunes. Microsoft claims it has over 2 million tracks available.

The Zune comes preloaded with both audio and video files, which will be deleted by most people to utilize the hard drive space. Independent music and video production companies appear to be the principal content providers.

For you Xbox 360 owners, connect you Zune to the Xbox 360 and use audio tracts from the Zune in your Xbox 360 game play, so you can play “Need for Speed” and create your own soundtrack.

Microsoft sometimes does things differently, but one of the odd things they are doing is giving Universal Studios a cut for each Zune sold. Reports are that Universal Studios and Microsoft have reached an agreement in which Universal will receive revenue from Microsoft for songs downloaded through their Zune Marketplace, which is an industry standard. The weirdness enters into the equation when Microsoft agreed to pay Universal a flat fee of $1.00 (some reports state it’s more) for each Zune that ends up in a customers possession. Who agreed to this? Microsoft and Universal are treating each Zune customer as if they have already stolen from Universal Studios. How long will it be before other music industry producers come to Microsoft with their hand out?

Another oddity occurred during the week of the Zune launch when Bill Gates said the iPod was "phenomenal, unbelievable, fantastic" - something the public had taken to heart. Gates stated Microsoft's goal with the Zune is "more modest" than replacing the iPod. "It's a growing market... we can get some of the new users and some of the switchers. We need to excite people about the concept - the idea of sharing music and video through Zune's built-in Wifi,” he said. It sounds like Gates is prepared to accept Steve Jobs leavings.

The Zune had great potential. It might have been a real challenge to Apple’s iPod, but when Microsoft made odd choices for the transfer of files, for revenue participation choices, for DRM and Zune points, turning control over to lawyers and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) they slapped the face of every customer they sought to gain and then turned their backs on them. I, for one, will not turn the other cheek.














http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6o0tNa6FbA&NR (Caution: Language)