Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Microsoft Tries To Challenge The iPod

The newest mp3 player hit the shelves yesterday, but it is already easy to see that the Microsoft Zune will never equal the iPod. The Zune has a few nice qualities, such as a built-in FM radio (iPod requires a $50 accessory to listen to FM radio), and a screen which is a full 1/2 inch larger than it's competitor. Microsoft also brags about their wireless networking capabilities, but don't let that fool you. They have been heavily advertising the fact that you can share songs wirelessly with your friends, but according to Dean Takahashi with Mercury News, it's not quite as awesome as it seems. For one thing, you can only share songs with other Zune users and there just aren't many of them out there yet.
Within a couple minutes of charging my two Zune players, I was sharing a song. But it's not a lasting relationship. Each song you share lasts for only three plays or three days on your friend's Zune.

And if you share a song with a friend, you can never share that same song with that friend again. To me that is a lame concession to the music studios, not the rights of users. If you think of all the things that Microsoft could have done with wireless networking, Zune disappoints. For instance, you can't surf the Web, or act like a DJ so your friends can listen simultaneously to the same song you're playing. And the Zune won't wirelessly synchronize with your PC. It has to be connected by a USB cable.

Dean also discovers a few other issues with Microsoft's Zune which aren't as obvious as they should be.

The advantages of Apple's momentum are evident in other ways. Microsoft's Zune Marketplace has 2 million songs versus Apple's 3.5-million song iTunes Web site. Microsoft is also playing catch-up with iTunes in providing TV shows, movies, music videos, audio books and podcasts. And there are only dozens of accessories for the Zune, compared to 3,000 for the iPod.

To buy songs, you spend points that you must purchase in $5 increments, a system that is similar to the e-commerce model on the Xbox 360 but annoying compared to the convenience of using your credit card to buy songs on iTunes for 99 cents. Deceptively, Microsoft sells its songs for 79 points, but it costs you 99 cents to accumulate that many points.

Overall, it doesn't sound to me like the Zune is going to be an immediate threat to Apple's iPod. However, just as they did with the Xbox, I am confident Microsoft will continue improving the Zune and will continue investing money into it until they finally do have a product that will seriously threaten Apple's monopoly on the portable music market. Maybe when that happens I will have grown tired of my 60GB video iPod...but I doubt it.

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