The Zune arrives

Originally written for eVent! [ep] magazine on 11/15/06.

Last week I complained about how early it seemed that Christmas was starting, and this week it's in full swing as a number of new products are hitting the shelves aiming to be your Christmas gift purchases. Sony's Playstation 3, Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Zune are all out this week, and all trying to get you to open your wallets. I've written about the video games console war that's about to erupt before, with the Playstation 3 and the Wii competing against the already released X-Box 360 from Microsoft. Today though it's a chance to look at the Zune, the newest MP3 player from Microsoft and their third attempt at an iPod killer.

As I said the Zune is Microsoft's third attempt at toppling Apple's iPod, the portable music player that's changed the way the world listens to music and made Apple a resurgent force in both the personal electronics field and also once more in the computer field. Their first two failed miserably and that's why you won't find a mention of them in any of the media coverage of the new device, because in the style of George Orwell's book Animal Farm if Microsoft just pretends it didn't happen it didn't happen and for the most part the press doesn't pick up on it.

Here Microsoft is playing an interesting game. In its desire to knock Apple off the MP3 block it's being a little bit sneaky with how it's selling the Zune and historical revisionism isn't it's only trick. For example the Zune is considerably bigger, clunkier and heavier, than the comparable iPod. So instead of comparing it to an iPod with the same amount of memory Microsoft's size comparisons are against an iPod with over twice the storage capacity. The goes for the battery life comparisons, and in some reviews in the media the newly released Zune gets compared to iPods that are up to two years old instead of newer and sleeker versions.

Playing with numbers like that is not anything new sadly. When was the last time you bought something with a battery where the battery actually lasted as long as it said it would on the box? MP3 players, cellular phones, laptops and all electronics get a bit of fudging in the numbers. Battery estimates tend to mean that under the best conditions a battery possibly could last that length of time. These estimates are talking about what possibly could maybe happen in a perfect world, which means it's never actually going to last that long.

The more pressing issue though is the previous attempts at dealing with the iPod, because it offers a warning for all those who might be thinking of buying a Zune. Like the iPod the Zune has a store where you buy music for it, or you can rip your already owned music from CDs. The music from the Zune store only works on the Zune, just as purchases from the iTunes music store only works on the iPod and not other devices. Fair enough, but the fact is since the iTunes music store has been released the songs have worked on all iPods, and a song you buy this year will work on an iPod you might buy two years from now.

In 2004 Microsoft had Portable Media Centers meant to unseat the iPod. In 2005 they joined with a wide range of different music services and device makers to create a standard music format called "Plays For Sure". The promise of "Plays For Sure" was that any MP3 player that used Microsoft software would be able to play any of the songs purchased at these stores such as Napster. Though never as successful as the iTunes music store a lot of these devices were sold, and a lot of songs were sold, now they won't work on the newest device from the company that made the format. The Zune does not work with the Microsoft "Plays For Sure" songs, and Microsoft is now competing against the device makers and music stores that they were supposed to partner with.

So if the Zune isn't a success in knocking the iPod off its block how long before Microsoft decides to pretend it didn't happen and bring out a new device with a new format? Any songs you might buy for your Zune could be outdated in less than a year. But hey, at least it's not so big that it won't fit under the Christmas tree. Or at least that's what Microsoft is hoping.