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November 9, 2006

Zune Abuse: Journal, Times

If you haven't gotten your fill of why the Zune won't be an iPod killer, read Pogue, Mossberg: The Wi-Fi-equipped Zune launches next week, and the two most widely read mainstream technology journalists have their reviews out--they don't much like it. I've been astounded that Microsoft would release a device with Wi-Fi that cannot sync via Wi-Fi to a computer (only via USB), and cannot connect to the Internet to download music. Pogue and Mossberg have broader critiques.

Mossberg is the kinder of the two. He likes some of what the Zune has and the iPod lacks, such as a built-in FM receiver, its larger screen, and the Wi-Fi music exchange feature. He also says the Zune correctly synchronizes music and other media files in a way that previous players that used Microsoft technology did not. Mossberg even finds the interface easier to use than Apple's. But that doesn't make up for a device that's "60% larger and 17% heavier than the comparable iPod," he notes, calling the design "rushed and incomplete." The battery life is poorer than the iPod's, too. The Zune's online store is much smaller than the iTunes Store, lacking TV shows, movies, and music videos, as well as audiobooks and podcasts. (There's zero help for managing or subscribing to podcasts, by the way.)

Mossberg heaps particular scorn on the purchasing model for the online store, which is the same as Microsoft uses for its Xbox Live Marketplace. Microsoft Points are pegged at 80 points to the dollar: $5 buys you 400 points or 500 points costs $6.25. Mossberg was irritated that you have to buy buckets of points in at least $5 increments; you can't just pay 99 cents via a credit card or other means to buy a 99-cent song, as you can with other stores. No, no, you have to pay $5 for 400 points and then use 79 points to purchase that song. I'm guessing Microsoft went with Points to tie in to an existing system that already supports worldwide purchase in local currency. The $15 per month subscription plan isn't being pushed, even though it's the gaping hole in Apple's music offerings.

Mossberg explains, too, that songs bought for the Zune will not play on any other music devices, and that songs purchased for playback using Microsoft's protected music format PlaysForSure will not play on the Zune. This latter fact came out months ago, but the former is worth noting as well, because it's been one of Microsoft's key talking points in critiquing the iPod/iTunes closed music format.

While he doesn't go into depth as to why the Wi-Fi features are a problem, Mossberg writes, "[T]he wireless music-sharing feature on the Zune is heavily compromised, in a way that is bound to annoy the very audience it is targeting."

Now David Pogue, a known admirer of Apple products and the iPod series (as am I), takes out an entire array of flensing knives to do his work. He spoke to a Zune product manager who essentially says that Microsoft's protected music system, PlaysForSure, is broken, which is something people outside Microsoft--including Real Networks, which just introduced their own system--have been saying for some time. Pogue quotes the Zune group's Scott Erickson saying, "PlaysForSure works for some people, but it's not as easy as the Zune." This is a remarkably strong statement from a Microsoftee, equivalent to burning villages and sowing salt on PlaysForSure's fields. More remarkably, Pogue notes, Windows Media Player can't interact with the Zune to load it with music! Another program is required for that purpose.

Pogue uncovers the fake scroll wheel, too, which isn't a scroll wheel at all: it's a round bezel that doesn't spin and isn't touch sensitive. Rather, it conceals four compass-point buttons.

But let's get to the Wi-Fi features. Pogue's tests show that you can send a song to another Zune user, the only use to which its Wi-Fi can now be put, in about 15 seconds, and a photo in two seconds, while video cannot be sent. Pogue states the Wi-Fi dilemma as "it's just so weird that Zunes can connect only to each other. Who’d build a Wi-Fi device that can’t connect to a wireless network--to sync with your PC, for example? Nor to an Internet hot spot, to download music directly?"

Pogue also jumps up and down on the restrictions for music sharing. There's no way for you, as the owner or creator of a piece of music, to tag it to not expire after the three days or three plays, whichever comes first, limitation of Zune's music sharing. (Mossberg found in his pre-release version that some songs would crap out after a few seconds or two plays, too, but Microsoft told him that's been fixed.)

There's a note of caution about discounting Microsoft too soon. As Pogue points out, all 1.0 products from Microsoft are "stripped-down and derivative," but research and marketing continues over year as they refine the product. Look at Windows Mobile 5 compared to any earlier release of Windows CE, for instance, and you'll see that Microsoft can create a smartphone and handheld OS that generally functional. (Although the OK button's function continues to be the strangest interface choice made in the history of mainstream computing.)


I'm waiting to see the first Open Source Zune client that allows you to install software on your laptop and rip files off of surrounding Zunes :)

I'm excited about the Zune only because of the possibilities it has. Unfortunately, my iPod doesn't have Wi-Fi at all, so I can't even compare it to the Zune on that front.

Also, the notion that all Microsoft has to do is turn on the features that people say Zune lacks with a firmware upgrade (instead of forcing users to buy a new device altogether) is pretty cool.

It's sort of like they just did with the XBox: Now you can rent movies and download them wirelessly. Who would have thought that would be a feature when they purchased the XBox a year ago?