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Microsoft's muscle hasn't helped Zune

By Tom Regan / November 29, 2006



Last month, I decided to review the new Zune MP3 player. After all, Microsoft's potential iPod killer had already received a fair bit of buzz.

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So I wrote to the company in Redmond, Wash., requesting a review copy (which I promised to return). I received a nice reply from a woman who told me she'd put my name on a list to get one. Weeks passed. I wrote a few more times asking when my name might rise to the top of that list.

I never heard back.

So, being the resourceful, enterprising columnist that I am, I went to a local electronics store where, with the help of a salesperson, I tried one out. I came away more impressed than I had anticipated, but not enough to want to buy one.

The Zune looks like an iPod (surprise!), except that it's a bit longer. It also has a built-in FM tuner (an add-on for an iPod) and a larger video screen than the iPod's. MP3 files sound pretty good on the Zune, but not that much different than what I've heard on my wife's iPod.

The best feature, in my book, is the larger screen. Not that I would ever watch television shows or movies on such a device (regardless of its maker). But I can see using it as, say, a digital photo album. You can upload plenty of photos to a Zune, and I can see passing it around the Christmas dinner table to share pictures of the kids.

Other than that, the Zune is an iPod, except that it has all the neurotic ticks that mark Microsoft products these days. For instance, one cool feature allows you to "beam" tunes or photos to other Zune owners. Great idea, especially for the photos. The only problem is that the beamed songs only last three days, or three plays, whichever comes first.

Say what? That's digital rights management gone loco. Such limitations offer very little incentive to Zune owners to share tunes, and it's the kind of move that makes technology geeks grind their teeth.

The other problem is that the Zune only plays tunes bought at the Zune Marketplace online store. So if you've purchased songs from other online music vendors such as Yahoo!, Napster, or Apple's iTunes, you can't listen to them on a Zune. So if you've already spent a fair bit of change on tunes in other formats, I can see not wanting to buy them again just so they will play on a Zune. (The MP3 crowd has already "moved" on this issue. Computer hacks are available at tech sites such as engadget.com that claim they will allow you to download and listen to "whatever you like" on a Zune.)

Microsoft is famous for getting into the game late and then using its operating- system muscle to take over the market. The success of its Internet Explorer browser and the Windows Media Player are two examples of this strategy. (Just ask Netscape or RealPlayer.)

But these days, the technology market is more mature, and people are less likely to dump something they like – an iPod – for a newer, supposedly flashier model. The iPod already has a big head start on a Zune, one that is not likely to be overcome soon.

No doubt the people at Microsoft watched in envy as crowds lined up for days to buy the new gaming consoles: Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii.

Nothing even remotely similar greeted the arrival of Zune.

Many Zune reviews have complained about how difficult it is to install its software onto your computer. Andy Ihnatko, of the Chicago Sun-Times, described the experience as "about as pleasant as having an air bag deploy in your face."

But Microsoft is facing a much more serious problem. The online community that determines what's hot and what's not has turned on the Zune in a particularly vicious fashion. The Zune has been savaged in two popular videos uploaded to YouTube (the audience that Zune really wants to capture). In one of them, late night talk-show host Craig Ferguson wisecracks, "It has all the features of the iPod, only it's not as good, and it's five years too late."

Ouch.

But I'm not willing to count out Microsoft or Zune. A lot of smart people at that company are no doubt already working on a second, improved version.

My advice: Wait and see how that one works before we toss all the Zunes in the trash bin of high-tech history.

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