Zune: Sharing the Sharing

First a disclaimer: I'm am not a gadget geek. I've never felt compelled to be on the bleeding edge of hot, new tech gear. Usually I sit out the first round and wait for the discovery and repair of the inevitable flaws in a new product. So don't expect some uber-geek review of the Zune. For official details, head over to Cesar's site zuneinsider.com.

That's right, I said Zune (More screenshots). Last week I made my way up to Seattle for a sneak preview of Microsoft's Zune along with Rachel from Scenestars, Dodge from MOKB, Anders from Music For Robots, Amrit from Stereogum, and Grant from Tiny Mix Tapes. There were a handful of reputable press outlets present as well, but they kept us riff-raff separated from the heavy-hitters. And much to Grant's and my chagrin, those heavy-hitters polished off the complimentary lunch wraps and left us with a few cookie crumbs. Hungry, but curious, we played nicely in their sandbox.

I suspected they invited us lowly bloggers in on this first look at Zune as a quick appeal to authenticity. I was right. And wrong. I was quickly impressed with the people behind the product. As I'm sure you've heard, a lot of the brains behind the Xbox are behind Zune. They're coming at Zune with the same passion and eye for design they did with Xbox. Then there's the music geeks. People like Richard Winn, straight up music fans who slyly tricked a multi-national corporation into paying them to geek out on music. Sure he's gotta deal with the Timberlakes and Beyonces, but don't think for a second he's not going to hit you with the good stuff. Richard's responsible for pre-loading (a small but generous gesture) the Zune with bands like CSS and Band of Horses.

Great, fine Sean, tell us something WE DON'T KNOW about Zune!! Hasn't everything been leaked already? Ok, I'll start with my favorite feature: like 3hive, Zune shares the sharing (we got the copyright on that Gates you hear me? Step off!) with its wireless functionality. If the right preferences are set Zune automatically finds other Zunes in the nearby vicinity (we didn't get to test the range). Then you can share single songs or entire playlists with other Zune users all wi-fi stylee. The recipient can listen to the song(s) three times, or over a period of three days, whichever comes first. Then the DRM kicks in and silences the tracks. If you want to buy the songs your friend Zuned you, they're one click away. When the Zune is synched with a computer there's an inbox feature built into the Zune store that remembers the shared songs for easy purchase. Speaking of the Zune store, ahem, Marketplace you can shop there a la carte (one song at a time) or all you can eat buffet (a monthly subscription to access all the tracks).

The wireless function opens up all sorts of possibilities, like DJing to an entire room of Zune users. Hey, I thought the idea of DJing with an iPod was ridiculous at first, but that doesn't stop people from doing it. Of course you can share your photos wirelessly with your friends, sans DRM. The drawback to the sharing function is that ALL MP3s get chained with DRM. So that favorite new song your friend downloaded from 3hive and Zuned over to you, even though the band wants you to have it no strings attached, you only have three plays/days to enjoy it. After that, you'll have to go download it yourself. A complete pain, but hopefully someone will build a handy hack to straighten things out.

Design: The overall design and user-interface really surprised me. My favorite color is the brown. The pictures don't do it justice. But when you're holding it in your hand there's this warm, vintage look to it, like you're cuddled up to your grandparents' hi-fi, dropping needle to Herb Alpert groove. And the screen size puts Apple to shame I'm afraid to say. I was praying Job's announcement on Tuesday would include bigger screens on the iPods...nope. Zune puts the large screen size to good use. Album artwork practically fills up the screen, easily beating out the iPod's perpetual thumbnail presentation. Oh, I can't forget to mention this: turn the Zune to a horizontal position and the screen AND controls all assume and work properly from the horizontal position. Key for watching the Zune tube. Both horizontal and vertical photos can be displayed full-sized. You can also spice up the background and set one of your own photos as the wallpaper.

Navigation: Although the Zune is controled by what looks to be a click wheel rip-off, you don't actually use the circular motion to navigate through the different categories. Press the top of the wheel to move your selection up, the bottom to go down, etc. The center of the circle activates your selection. The left arrow button takes you back. But unlike the need with an iPod to constantly hit menu to move back, the Zune uses an extra navigation bar within the active screen so the option of going all the way back to the main screen is one step away instead of three or four.

ETC: Initially the Zune will be available in one size: 30 gigs. They were keeping any future development possibilities close to the vest. The emphasis of sharing and discovering music within a community, and the wireless technology to pull it off, will lead to a lot of fun possibilities. There are also plans to support emerging artists in a meaningful way, beyond throwing money at a band in exchange for pinning the Zune banner on stage. Keep your eyes on the upcoming CSS tour to see exactly what they've got planned.

Bottom Line: For as cool as the Zune looks and runs on cursory inspection I don't think it'll inspire anyone to dump their Macs and run pell mell to the Windows platform vis-a-vis the iPod's power inspiring the reverse. But guess what? Microsoft couldn't care less about Mac users. They're banking on selling Zune to the millions who don't have an iPod yet, and those who only have one MP3 device in their life. Shudder to think! As for all the Mac purists out there, hopefully Zune will force Apple to step it up and push the iPod to new heights instead of resting on its laurels and throwing out more storage or new colors occasionally.

Posted by sean on 09.14.06


Did they let you keep the Zune? I bet not. I thought the brown might be nice. Did anyone say anything about battery life on the device?

Posted by: Zune at September 14, 2006 01:06 PM

Nope. I didn't fly home craddling a baby Zune. They did give us a baseball cap and t-shirt that reads "They Let Us Look at Zune and All We Got Was This Surprisingly Stylish Tee." I heard someone mention 12 hours of battery life, but my stomach was growling, so I may be off the mark. That'd be nice though.

Posted by: sean at September 14, 2006 01:34 PM

Dude. No Mac support. Weak.

Posted by: jon at September 14, 2006 02:31 PM

Yeah I'm in that 1% of Apple's user base that actually wants and iPod alternative. Very dissapointing to hear they arent going to support mac.

Posted by: andrew at September 14, 2006 03:16 PM

I've heard that it's basically the Toshiba with another case.

Posted by: patatomic at September 14, 2006 03:38 PM

If Mac users are digging on the Zune, why not use (or upgrade) to the Intel and just dual boot for the support?

Posted by: su-shay at September 14, 2006 05:17 PM

Because it would be a major PITA.

With the resources Microsoft has, it wouldn't have taken too much to make a mac and linux versions of their software.

No, they probably wouldn't sell many Zunes to mac or linux users even if they did, but it would show what they say about openess is more than rhetoric (particularly given the history of the company).

Posted by: Steve Rhodes at September 14, 2006 06:17 PM

I'm glad that you liked the Zune. We can't WAIT until Zune is released.

Feel free to drop by and say a quick helllo, sean!


Posted by: lpxxfaintxx at September 14, 2006 07:27 PM

Andrew, consider me part of that 1% of Mac fans that want an iPod alternative.

And, despite the fact that it will more than likely have the flaws of any first-generation product (even the iPod wasn't perfect at first), the specs on the Zune sound wicked cool!

Posted by: DW at September 14, 2006 07:45 PM

I just read Engadget's interview with Microsoft VP J. Allard who confirms that Zune will play AAC files....

"We have really pretty strong commitment to being compatible with your existing libraries. We know we're not the first player in this space, and that there's a ton of media out there, and so we put a bunch of codec support in there. You know, iTunes by default rips in AAC, there's a lot of AAC content out there, so we'll play AAC natively. MP3s, obviously...we really are taking a relatively agnostic approach to different formats...For us this is not a format play, we're not trying to tell consumers what format they have to keep their media in."


Posted by: sean at September 14, 2006 08:04 PM

Note that while the Zune's screen is physically bigger than the iPod's, its resolution is exactly the same. Larger screen + same number of pixels = less clarity (with some extra battery drainage thrown in). I'm sure the screen dimensions will lure some buyers who don't pay attention to such details (and getting buyers is certainly the name of the game here) but it's really no advantage -- largely the opposite -- in actual use.

Posted by: Mark U. at September 15, 2006 02:56 PM

Totally agree about the brown Zune. I'll never buy one, but the device looks great. When they're released, I hope someone replaces their buttons with bakelite.

Posted by: Ben Donley at September 15, 2006 03:31 PM

Oddly, no one ever thinks about the market implications of the sharing feature. It turns out that the implications are universally negative for Microsoft, or any other new entrants into the MP3 player market.

There are 2 possibilities: either it is popular, or it is not. Consider the latter (and probably more likely) possibility first. If it is not popular, then Microsoft is selling a player that costs more to manufacture, is bulky, and has poor battery life, all to support a feature that most people do not want. Obviously that will only result in failure in the long run.

But now consider the first possibility. If it is popular, then Microsoft will do reasonably well in the short run - perhaps in the ultra-optimistic scenario they take 10% of the total market (keeping in mind that they cannot even compete with Nano and Shuffle type players, which make up the majority of the market). In that scenario, Apple will obviously add wireless sharing to the iPod within the next year (in fact, they almost surely already have such a contingency plan). But, since the iPod has a much higher market share than any other competitor, the value of wireless sharing in an iPod will quickly become much higher than the value of wireless sharing in the Zune (or any other player). This is what economists refer to as network externalities. The Zune and other players will then be increasingly marginalized, as there will be no way for them to communicate with the hoards of wireless iPods. Ironically, Microsoft would find the same difficulties in competing in this scenario that Apple and other OS manufacturers find when competing with Windows. The only way that Microsoft could succeed is if Apple delayed the release of a wireless iPod for at least 18-24 months after Zune became popular, but that seems incredibly unlikely, especially since it appears that they are already on the verge of coming out with even more ambitious devices like the iPod phone (compared to that, grafting WiFi onto an iPod is pretty trivial).

Posted by: economist at September 15, 2006 04:51 PM

It is my understanding that while it will play AAC files (MPEG-4 audio), it will not be able to decode DRM'd AAC files bought from iTunes. I cannot locate my source on this, but it makes sense.

I was baffled by the brown, but you may be right about its vintage appeal.

Posted by: Adam Preble at September 15, 2006 05:01 PM

You can be 100% certain it will not play DRM'd AAC files - that would immediately allow Microsoft to be sued under DMCA.

Posted by: economist at September 15, 2006 05:16 PM

It's worth noting that on 5G iPods, you can hold the Menu button to go directly up to the root menu (this toggled the backlight on older models).

Posted by: Robert Boyce at September 15, 2006 05:52 PM

3hive: You don't have to "constantly hit menu" to move back in the iPod navigation. Just hold menu on all down for an extra half secon and your are transported to the main (top) navigation. This is a "feature" of at least all 5th gen iPods with firmware 1.1 or above (before that holding Menu would ignite the backlight).

Its tough to say that the Zune screen puts the iPod's to shame as they share the same screen resolution. The pixels on the Zune are just slightly bigger; there isn't more of the. Also, pressing the center button on the iPod switches to "large album art view."

I will agree that the Zune is good for consumers. Zune seems to be compelling and will push Apple also. Win-win no matter what you like.

Posted by: Lekun at September 15, 2006 06:18 PM

I'm sorry for commenting so late and before reading all of the comments, but 12 hours of battery life? That must be with WiFi turned off. With the WiFi turned on, it's probably three hours, maybe eight while in "beacon" mode.

Do you think it's possible to share an m3u without DRM? If so, you could share the sharing with a playlist that tells you where to download. Of course, you'd have to be by a hotspot for that to work.

Posted by: Kayhan [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 19, 2006 07:16 PM

No Mac support is pretty short sighted. Too bad, because it sounds cool

Posted by: Rocketscience at September 29, 2006 10:48 AM

You're demeaning 3hive by comparing the real open sharing that happens here to Microsoft's miserly three-day/three-play demo... even for songs that you wrote and performed yourself and so have full rights to share!

I'm also not sure why people are all excited about having an iPod "alternative". There are dozens of iPod "alternatives" out there ... including the original version of the Zune... the Toshiba Gigabeat, which (like almost all such devices) costs *less* than either the Zune or the iPod and is (of course) already out there.

And what's up with that pricing anyway. What's Microsoft doing talking up the price of the Zune as if being the same price as the iPod was some kind of miracle? Only Microsoft could take a $180 device and sell it for $250 and convince people that they're cheap because they're not gouging you more than Apple does!

If the Zune succeeds even marginally it will be a stake in the heart of Microsoft's existing content partners and licensees, since it's incompatible with "Plays For Sure" WMA files... which means that consumers will actually have fewer choices than they do now!

Posted by: Peter da Silva at October 5, 2006 12:16 PM

Peter-- you're right, 3hive's sharing reigns supreme. I also agree that shackling a user's original file with their DRM is a major weakness in their sharing philosophy. I told them as much everytime they asked me for my first impressions of the Zune. I was told again and again that was the way it had to be--that there was no convenient way to separate original and licensed material and that system wide functionality was necessary to honor labels' licensed content.

Posted by: sean at October 5, 2006 12:54 PM

Unfortunately Microsoft is probably going to be like Sony and completely fail to learn their lesson if, as I expect, the "sharing" functionality of the Zune is largely ignored.

Remember how Sony managed to almost completely torpedo the MiniDisc? That ticked me off, I'd have loved to see them take off and give us a cheap read-write medium back in the day, back before writable CDs were ubiquitous. Then they tried flash memory players that couldn't even play MP3s. More recent events have sure demonstrated how well they learned that lesson.

It's pretty clear that Microsoft's trying to get some astroturf support for the device... from people evangelizing about the Zune so their friends will broadcast their playlists and give them material to copy. Making sure that they direct that third play into their sound card so they can bypass the DRM :).

I wonder how long before someone gets Linux on a Zune and sets up a walkabout Torrent seed.

Posted by: Peter da Silva at October 6, 2006 04:49 PM

At least by being Brown it will stick out from the rest.

Posted by: ZuneBorwn.com at November 1, 2006 08:54 PM

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