Too Zune to Tell

Breakfast Show Live 2006-11-17 – Portable Music Mayhem

These are my notes for my appearance on Channel 31’s Breakfast Show Live. They may not make perfect sense when read aloud, it’s essentially a set of ideas for my preview of the Microsoft Zune, an iPod competitor. Anyhoo – Enjoy!

On November 14th, Microsoft launched its latest assault on the iPod empire in the United States, called the Zune.

Now, Microsoft has tried to usurp Apple’s dominance before. In their most recent campaign, they created a set of standards a protocols that could be implemented by any company, and any music store. The idea was that they would create a vibrant ecosystem of players that would all work with whatever music store you want. Unfortunately with choice comes complexity, and consumers were so baffled by the array of choices that in the end they all went and bought an iPod. One store, one device, one media player.

So now it’s round two, and Microsoft has gone back to the drawing board. And this time, they have pumped millions, possibly billions of dollars into creating a single device, called the Zune, and a single store, called the Zune Store.

So for reference, here’s a picture of the iPod that most of us have seen before.

Now Microsoft looked at this, and thought: How can we create a device that’s so compelling, so inspiring, that raises the bar so high that people will throw away their iPod and immediately buy one. Well, here it is. Oh my God. Are those two additional buttons? I couldn’t be more excited if it had gull-wing doors.

The Zune costs the same as the equivalent iPod, at US$250.

The Zune does have a few features that the iPod doesn’t have. It has a slightly larger screen. You can have a photo as your background. But the feature Microsoft has been pushing hardest is wireless communication. If you’ve got your Zune out on the train, it can tell if there’s other Zune’s within a few metres, and you can send songs or photos to those people, which is pretty cool. BUT. When you send someone a song, even if it’s a song you made yourself, the Zune deletes it after 3 days or 3 plays, whichever comes first. And once someone’s been sent a song once, they can never be sent that song again.

Now, you might ask yourself, why would Microsoft do this? It just seems silly and annoying. But it’s simply because they need to gain favour with the music industry, and the last thing the music industry wants is for people to go around sharing music and not buying it. But regardless of their reasoning, it would almost be better not to have wireless at all than have this horrible ticking time-bomb music feature.

Also, you would think that since the device has wireless internet built in, it would be great to actually browse the internet on it when you’re in a hotspot. But again, Microsoft has decided that they don’t want this.

So we’ve talked about what features it has, but what does the Zune lack that the iPod has?

Well, one of the reasons a lot of my friends bought an iPod is because it also functions as an external hard drive that you can back up your files on. The Zune doesn’t do this. It’s so bizarre because, when you get right down to it, the Zune is little more than just a 30 gig hard drive that you can plug headphones into. It’s such a no-brainer to add this feature, and every other MP3 player on earth has it.

Also unlike the iPod, the Zune doesn’t play games, doesn’t sync your addresses or calendars, doesn’t have an alarm clock, and there’s no native support for podcasts. Zune’s equivalent of iTunes is a brand new application, rather than Windows Media Player, and apparently it crashes a lot.

But we’ve saved the best for last: The Zune Store.

The Zune Store looks a lot like the iTunes music store, but with one important difference. You can only buy songs using Microsoft Points, which cost $5 for 400 points. Songs cost 79 points, which at first glance looks cheaper than the iTunes cost of 99 cents. But wait! Something’s fishy here.

I’d like our viewers to cast their minds back, back into the mists of time, to primary school. Follow me on a merry dance through the land of numbers.

$5 = 400 points
1 point = 1.25 cents
79 points x 1.25 cents = 98.75 cents

So when you round up to the nearest cent, Microsoft is actually charging the same as iTunes. It’s marketing genius! They must think people are idiots! And the best part is, you can only buy Microsoft Points in increments of $5, so unlike the iTunes store where you just pay what the song is worth, you instead have to go through this laborious conversion process and let Microsoft hang onto your money.

This is just profiteering gone mad, and I’d be very surprised if there isn’t an uproar over this.

So just to conclude, the Zune is around the same size as the iPod, around the same cost, and has the same basic features. But the experience of using it is likely to be so annoying that it’s going to be groundbreaking only in the sense of that’s how hard you’ll be throwing it at the ground.

Microsoft has promised new features and a Zune phone some time next year. They have the money and resources to get this right, so I think it’s worth keeping an eye on them to see what happens. In the meantime though, I’d just get an iPod. And if you can’t afford one, whistle as you walk.