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Slacker joins Apple and Microsoft in releasing new models: It's been a busy week for those who follow the latest developments in music players. Apple's new iPods, while not revolutionary, still up the ante for features and quality; Microsoft's new Zunes, released today, come with fascinating new software options; and the Slacker G2 today. The G2, like the iPod touch and all Zunes, sports Wi-Fi.
Slacker licenses music directly from publishers, and includes a perpetual subscription in the cost of the player. Slacker creates stations that feed out an endless supply of music. The new models are $200 for a 4GB model with the ability to list 25 stations (up to 2,500 songs), or $250 for an 8 GB model with 40 stations (up to 4,000 songs). You can also sync your own music in MP3 or WMA format. For $7.50 per month, you can upgrade and store songs you're listening to, as well as avoid ads.
The G2 is already getting reviews as a much-improved upgrade from the first release. Like the Zune, there's no browser or other Internet features, and that might be a positive.
The G2 is tied into Devicescape's Wi-Fi home and hotspot authentication system, which lets Slacker G2 owners pre-program encryption keys or login information for hotspots that they frequent. Devicescape's software both retrieves and stores login information, allowing the G2 to be used in places that would otherwise require either tedious entry of a WPA passphrase, or be unavailable without a Web browser to handle the login.
Microsoft signs three-year deal with Wayport for old and new Zune owners alike: This is a nice win for Zune users, Wayport, and McDonald's, each in their own way, and it's something Microsoft can simply write off as useful marketing--and a way to get people to try the latest models of their music player, which are being released on 16-September.
The Zune doesn't include a Web browser or any Internet focused features; it's not an iPod touch. But you can use Wi-Fi to browse the Zune Marketplace for music and games, and download new songs in programmed channels, music selections created by a variety of artists and stations. Zune offers both music purchases and a subscription for unlimited music listening. The new models range from $149 for an 8 GB flash model to $249 for a 120 GB hard drive-based player.
The feature I'm most interested in is Buy from FM, which leverages the built-in FM tuner and very low-bandwidth data that's already pushed over analog AM/FM. (See my write-up of this feature from last week.) With Buy from FM, when you're listening to radio stations that participate, you'll be able to click a button and buy the song you're listening to if you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. Zune Pass subscribers can download the song at no additional charge. If there's no Wi-Fi network, the song download or purchase is queued.
Wayport's marketing head Dan Lowden said, "Obviously, it's cool because folks who already own a Zune device and just need to do an upgrade will be able to use this just as with any of the new Zune devices that they start selling as soon as possible." (Microsoft may have a little accounting work to do: Sarbanes-Oxley doesn't let you enhance a product in the market without a fee if you realize the revenue all at once.)
The benefit for Wayport is to have yet another hefty but undisclosed fixed sum underlying its fixed infrastructure costs. In the past, Wayport has done deals with Nintendo, ZipIt, and Eye-Fi to allow all devices in a category unlimited access at McDonald's locations. McDonald's obviously gets more customers, or existing customers who spend more time or visit more frequently.
A partnership with a hotspot operator means that Microsoft doesn't have to provide tools and their users endure frustration in joining a network. "We're experts enabling one click to get this network connected," Lowden said. He noted that Wayport has opened test labs to work with manufacturers in Japan, San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle. "We're working with these guys from day 1 to make sure it's one click to get connected," he said. I'd also note that San Diego happens to be where Qualcomm's headquarters are located, not that Lowden gave me any tip-off there.
And I have to just say: burn, burn, burn on Apple. Despite Apple partnership with AT&T, which relies on Wayport to operate the AT&T-branded hotspot network and resells access to Wayport's own network, iPhone and iPod touch users have no inclusive Wi-Fi service. AT&T slipped a few times and ostensibly opened up their network or released details that iPhone users would gain free hotspot access--like all AT&T's fiber and all its standard and premium DSL customers.
As Wi-Fi becomes an expected part of any handheld gadget, the venues in which Wi-Fi is used multiply beyond cafes and hotels. Lifestyle locations--which could be clothing stores, nightclubs, ski resorts, and the tops of mountains suddenly become places where people want the same kind of access they have at home. Ultima thule is already unwired.
Latest Zune firmware, software allows Wi-Fi music purchases, FM tagging: Microsoft confirmed the 16-Sept-2008 release of new Zune firmware and players, allowing users of old and new devices alike to purchase music over Wi-Fi from the Zune Marketplace. The new firmware also sports FM tagging that uses information that some broadcasters will embed in their analog programming to tag songs for immediate purchase (single track) or download (Zune Pass subscription) over a Wi-Fi hotspot, or to queue for later download.
Apple added access for iPhone and iPod touch users to a subset of its iTunes Store over Wi-Fi--the awkwardly named iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store--more than a year ago, along with the ability to access that store at no cost from handhelds and laptops via Starbucks outlets in New York, Seattle, and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. (Chicago and Los Angeles have been "coming soon" for a year, but the new AT&T/Starbucks deal may have delayed opening up those markets.)
Terrestrial AM/FM radio stations would like to figure out how to remain meaningful in a world of streaming Internet radio. Their latest strategy is to embed information that allows a listener to mark a song they want, potentially getting a piece of music sold in this fashion. With FM tagging, Zune players tap into an existing very low-data-rate encoding protocols that allow stations to push out their call letters and current song information. By adding a very short code, broadcasters can allow Zunes to look up the appropriate song.
At launch, 450 stations from major networks, including Clear Channel, Entercom, and others, will broadcast tagging details. Note that Microsoft includes KEXP, a Seattle independent and alternative radio station, in its sample image, for the new models. KEXP, given a boost a few years ago through significant short-term funding by Paul Allen--funding that involved changing its call letters to his Experience Music Project museum initials--has an enormous listenership over the Internet ironically enough. KEXP will be a programming partner creating channels of music for the subscription-based Zune Pass service. (Zune Pass is $15 per month, all you can eat.)
This option could allow Microsoft to ink partnerships with hotspot networks to brand them with Zune compatibility, lets radio stations promote something other than iPods that they would have a direct relationship with (and, potentially, some kind of revenue stream from?), and may be part of breaking Apple's digital music hegemony. May be. Nobody's gotten rich betting against Apple for the last several years. (Details of revenue sharing with radio stations hasn't been discussed.)
Apple opted for a partnership with HD Radio broadcasters and equipment makers that has a relatively elaborate process of tagging songs. HD Radio is digital AM/FM, a patented and licensed method that has provoked a lot of controversy, and has lagged enormously in the marketplace, despite well over 1,000 stations (including many public radio stations) broadcasting in this digital format, some for over three years.
HD Radio tagging requires an HD radio receiver with a Tag button; pressing that button stores the song's tag information. The radio must also have an iPod dock. Docking an iPod syncs the tag information, and the next time the iPod is sync with iTunes, you can see which songs were tagged. Kind of tedious compared to "press a button while listening to an FM station and buy the song over Wi-Fi." (I've been writing about HD Radio for years, and even launched a blog that's gone moribund; the technology is interesting, but Internet radio on mobile devices coupled with on-demand music purchasing over cell and Wi-Fi may simply make HD Radio unnecessary for listeners.)
Microsoft has a more compelling "marketing story" for this feature than Apple, that's for sure. On the other hand, do you really need to tag songs from stations that play only the most popular music in a given format?
White goods maker Haier introduces its first portable music player to generally positive reviews (Yahoo's The Gadget Hound, PC Magazine): The company best known for refrigerators and other home hardware staples is getting kudos for its Ibiza line of music players. The device has Wi-Fi built in and requires no computer to set up a connection to the Real Networks's Rhapsody subscription music service. The device comes in a 30 GB hard drive version ($330) and 4 GB and 8 GB flash models ($230 and $250). Both reviewers note that while the device is similar is size to an iPod or Zune, it's design is a little lacking, but not in a way that hampers use. The graphic interface is also not as good as either Microsoft or Apple's players, but it doesn't sound terrible, as so many music players' interfaces are. The chief complaint appears to be a problem with multitasking and hard drive speed, where the hard-drive edition of the Ibiza at least can't seem to keep up with demands.
Zunes will come in 4, 8, and 80 GB versions: Lots of changes, but the only real news is syncing of media over Wi-Fi. Podcasts can be synced, but not downloaded wirelessly. No wireless music store. New models ship in mid-November; existing 30 GB units will get software updates. They'll selling some DRM-free music (1m tracks). Pretty much walking in Apple's footsteps, not filling them.
The Starbucks/Apple deal that allows free use of the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store in retail establishments launched today: I wrote up my experiences for Macworld.com, notably that the launch in at least two stores were glitchy, and even after the main features worked, I still disagree with their fundamental setup.
Apple advertised this experience on their site thusly: "Stroll into a participating Starbucks and you’re connected automatically. Browse and search the entire iTunes Store from your laptop or millions of songs on the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store from iPod touch or iPhone." Not quite.
In the two stores I checked today with an iPod touch, iPhone, and Mac laptop, I had to select the network "tmobile" when offered to me; there was no automatic process. Further, I was never able to get the laptop to access iTunes--or even T-Mobile's gateway page. (I could reach T-Mobile.com, and could use other nearby Wi-Fi networks, so I'm mystified at that problem.) The iPod touch and iPhone could, ultimately, reach the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, allowing me to browse selections, see what was playing, and purchase songs.
Once having selected "tmobile," the iPod touch and iPhone remember the network as a choice, meaning that they try to use the network for Internet operations other than iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store interaction. Since T-Mobile's network is for-fee, without an account or paying for service, you have to "forget" the network after each time you use it in order to access the Internet unless you want to pay T-Mobile or have an account with them (see the article for instructions).
What I'd expected is that T-Mobile would have enabled a special virtual SSID, or secondary network name, that the iPhone, iPod touch, and some part of iTunes would be able to recognize and connect to without affecting choices made for general Internet connectivity. They did not. This is a huge mistake. It will result in frustration for users who otherwise expect to choose selectively about which networks they use for Internet access.
For iPhone users, you can optionally turn off Wi-Fi to force a switch to the EDGE network to avoid using T-Mobile's service outside of iTunes, but that's an extra step.
This should have been seamless. A beat was skipped. Apple and Starbucks won't have the success with this they expect because they will train regular visitors to not accept the "tmobile" network.
Today's version 1.1.1 firmware update for the Apple iPhone turns on the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store: The store's name describes its limitations, recall. It's for Wi-Fi, not EDGE; it's music, not video. Within those limitations, the service is pretty grand. Those who bought the iPod touch a few days have already seen how it works, but this is my first exposure. The interface is just as nifty as the rest of the iPhone. (Apple is slick enough to have a well-produced and inoffensive video demonstration from Mr. iPhone, a very calm fellow who performed on the initial iPhone video demo. I hope he releases a sleep tape, too.)
You click the iTunes logo on the home screen of the iPhone, and--as long as you're connected to a Wi-Fi network--see a list of featured songs. You can browse by genre, look at top 10 lists by genre, or get to the heart of it by clicking Search. The Search screen unexpectedly shows a blank page with a search field at the top. Apple should improve the UI here to give some indication that something didn't just go wrong, which was my impression.
As you start typing in the search field, options are displayed immediately, a nice feature that relies on a Web 2.0-like mechanism, surely (it's very AJAXy). It also means that you avoid tediously typing, entering, retyping, correcting. If you get it wrong, you just deleted a character and re-enter, and see the new choices as you type.
The results are intelligently displayed, showing artists and album names. Select one, and you see the results sorted into Albums at the top and Songs below. Two albums are shown with a prompt to see more if there are; 25 songs are displayed, and a link to view another 25.
Tap a song, and a 30-second preview starts to play. Tap the price to the right, and it flips around to display Buy Song. Tap that, and you're prompted to log in with your iTunes Store password (not sure how often you're prompted for that password; iTunes itself only stores it for a period of time, although that behavior can be changed through preferences). After entering your password, a red marker jumps--it's pretty animation--down into the Downloads icon at the bottom, and the song begins to download.
When you dock your iPhone (or iPod touch) the next time, music purchased is synchronized back.
Apple's changed the face of digital music buying. Again. When will they stop? Oh, yeah, Amazon entered the market this week with a beta version of their DRM-free MP3 store with prices 30 to 40 cents lower than comparable unprotected tracks from Apple. But you'll have to buy those songs at a computer, not on an iPhone.
The new iPod with Wi-Fi--the iPhone without the phone--won't bring huge bucks into stores other than Starbucks: The reason is that Apple mysteriously has chosen to make no hotspot deals except with Starbucks, nor allow third-party applications (so far). Which means that getting onto any but a free network that doesn't require a login is a hassle. Without an application or a partnership deal in place, users who want to use the average for-fee hotspot, even one for which they have an account, will have to engage in the tedious task of entering their details each time they use the network.
The other part of this problem is that hotspot operators have told me that they've never been excited by the prospect of having mobile devices that can download huge files without additional compensation. I believe that's one reason that Apple restricted the iTunes purchases from iPods and iPhones to music. I can't see a simple way by which hotspot operators can recoup additional bandwidth costs; they may have to impose throttling if they don't already. (I suspect most well-run hotspots have variable throttling based on overall usage and a particular user's usage.)
Starbucks can see this as a minor win for them, because of the frictionless process of gaining access with an iPhone or iPod touch. There's no account entry to buy music; it seems like a small step from that into bundling T-Mobile HotSpot accounts with iPods and iPod touchs, but that might run afoul of the AT&T deal Apple has for the iPhone. (Where's AT&T WiFi, that company's Wi-Fi hotspot network? Apparently, part of a different division--the consumer part--and almost entirely McDonald's stores, as I've previously reported.)
Apple introduces the iPhone without the iPhone: The company announced the iPod Touch this morning, including the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. The new iPod includes Wi-Fi but not EDGE (it's not a cell phone, after all), and lists for $299 for an 8 GB model and $399 for a 16 GB model. There's a Safari browser and some widgets, but no email client. Apple rates the player at 22 hours of audio and 5 hours of video playback per charge. The device will be launched worldwide, shipping in September, CEO Steve Jobs said.
Apple also introduced the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, which will be rolled out later this month to iPhones and iPod touch models. The store will sell music only over Wi-Fi, as you might have guessed. This prevents iPhone users from overloading the EDGE network. The limit of music and not video likewise prevents iPhone users from drowning hotspots with multi-gigabyte TV and movie purchases. The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store allows music previews and purchase. Songs purchased on the iPod Touch are synchronized back to your computer the next time you dock the iPod touch or iPhone. (Apple dropped the iPhone price to $399 for an 8 GB model, a $200 reduction. They eliminated the 4 GB model.)
In a neat bit of co-marketing, if you carry an iPod Touch, iPhone, or a computer with iTunes installed into a Starbucks with T-Mobile HotSpot service, the music player will join a music-purchase-only network that allows you to buy the song you're listening to with a single click. The Starbucks option starts in Seattle and New York in 600 stores Oct. 2, and rolls out from November to March in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, before spreading to other metro areas and all 5,800 Wi-Fi-equipped Starbucks by 2009. The Starbucks button also lets you see the last 10 songs played, and purchase other music from the Wi-Fi store.
It's a good win for Starbucks, because people with iPods and iPhones don't take up as much real estate as a laptop toter. They also probably don't stay as long, and they're almost certainly more likely to have more hands free to buy drinks and food. I expect that Starbucks will see a real uptick in sales at their initial stores when this features launches. For Apple, the company gets to add out-of-the-home distribution points with no real cost entailed. They'll give a piece of the sale to Starbucks (who will ostensibly give some money to T-Mobile, too). iPod and iPhone owners without home broadband or with slow broadband now have a reason to go to Starbucks.
My prediction has long been that Starbucks and T-Mobile will put in media servers in the stores themselves. Starbucks has tried this before with on-demand disc cutting, and such, but I'm talking about an edge media server that lives in the store and has the few terabytes of most popular music and video. An iPhone or iPod user would make the purchase in the store and receive files at 802.11g speeds (roughly 20 to 25 Mbps), making a 1 GB movie transfer in less than 10 minutes or an album in less than 30 seconds.
David Pogue reviews the latest Wi-Fi-enabled music player, and finds admirable features alongside showstopping problems: SanDisk has promoted the notion that its flash-based 4GB, $250 music player can access any of 2m songs from Yahoo's $15/month music service. Pogue notes that it can do no such thing. Instead, the player has access to only songs that are streamed via Yahoo Internet radio stations and a few limited lists, and some of those songs can't be downloaded because of licensing restrictions.
Pogue likes the intent of the Wi-Fi connection, providing direct access to the Internet via hotspots or home networks to download music and view Flickr photos. But, good gravy, the limitations are ridiculous. The Sansa Connect won't enable Wi-Fi if the battery has dropped below 60 percent; Pogue found Wi-Fi network connections erratic in his testing, too. There's no provision to connect to a network that requires payment or authentication. (One hopes they solve that through either Boingo or Devicescape or both.)
Can I beat the drum any louder about the speed of the wireless LAN in a hotspot? It's hardly been leveraged, despite the long existence of all 802.11g hotspot networks and built-in laptop adapters. With most home broadband running under a couple Mbps, and WLANs in a hotspot able to achieve 20 to 25 Mbps, you'd think that differential could be leveraged for media. Sure, there are issues of fulfillment and security to be dealt with, but there's money in them there WLANs. Stick a media server and a couple terabyte array on the network, and Bob's your uncle.
Starbucks may be considering an in-store media delivery partnership with Apple, based on some tea leaf--excuse me, coffee grounds reading, given that Starbucks now has an area in the iTunes Store, and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz said they'd offer a digital music fill-up service in their stores within 12 months. Maybe you'd walk up to a kiosk and plug in a USB cable. But it would be more sensible to offer Wi-Fi connections, especially with 802.11n about to flood the marketplace with speeds that could average 100 Mbps, especially a controlled indoor space. (USB nets to about 300 Mbps of throughput.) Wireless USB is also an option if ultrawideband takes off.
In every transportation segment I've spoken to--planes, ferries, trains, buses, and subways--there's great interest in coupling Internet access (which could run 200 Kbps to 2 Mbps, sometimes faster) with on-board media servers feeding streaming media and, potentially, downloadable purchasable media. No one is really taking advantage of the wireless LAN in hotspots or across campuses and cities yet.
News.com writer tries to find another Zune: She wanders likely spots in San Francisco, even finding a Microsoft employee who has three--but not carrying any on him. She finally finds one lonely man watching Family Guy on it. That's illegal, of course, because he would have had to rip Family Guy using tools that are prohibited for use in the U.S., and because Microsoft does not offer video downloads yet from its store.
Silex releases $149 dock for iPods with Wi-Fi, Ethernet connectivity: The WiDock includes standard output features, like audio and S-Video, while connecting to a computer for synchronization and library access via 802.11b/g or 10/100 Mbps Ethernet. The Wi-Fi side supports WEP and WPA/WPA2 Personal. Because the dock requires power, it also charges the iPod. The WiDock works with Windows 2000/XP and Mac OS X 10.2.7 or later. It supports the third-generaton iPod or later (iPod, iPod nano, iPod mini).
The WiDock is an interesting alternative to the AirPort Express, a small base station that Apple sells for $130. The Express is a Wi-Fi gateway with a single Ethernet port and Wireless Distribution System (WDS) support. Its unique feature is AirTunes, which lets any iTunes user on the same network send music--encrypted in transit--to the Express, which sports a combo analog/digital optical audio output port.
Apple plans to introduce the not-its-real-name iTV in 2007's first quarter to stream audio and video over a Wi-Fi or wired network. The video output will be HDMI (a superset of DVI, used for high-def connectivity with encryption layered over it) and component--no RCA jacks or S-Video.
MusicGremlin has answered my No. 1 request for their devices: These portable, Wi-Fi-enabled music players outdo Zune by using their built-in wireless adapters to, you know, synchronize with a computer and connect over the Internet. In fact, their peer-to-peer mode doesn't require proximity; I can exchange music with another MusicGremlin user elsewhere on the Internet as long as I have a network feed where I am. That's a bit more--social, innit?
The company announced Monday that they'd upgraded their Wi-Fi firmware to handle WPA and WPA2, which was my only real complaint with the initial foray a few months ago. WPA Personal is the minimum level of security I can recommend for home networks, and now MusicGremlin supports that.
The music player can also now take advantage of Wi-Fi gateways that use WMM Power Save, a feature that dramatically lowers power usage when the adapter is not actively transmitting or receiving. It requires a Wi-Fi gateway that has this feature installed, which is part of 802.11e (quality of service), but has been separately certifeid by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
MusicGremlin said that a new feature will let a player owner control the player wirelessly using a Web browser and an account on the company's Web site. Artist alerts about new music can now be delivered to the MusicGremlin directly, as well as to email.
Finally, this upgrade is an over-the-air release: no separate download required.
Today's take on Microsoft's Zune: "Would the Zune ever be able to connect to the Internet? Could someone walk into a Starbucks and use the connection there to download a song?"
Mr. Lee answered without hesitation: 'Probably, one day.' "
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 embarassed to say that I assumed the Zune could use its Wi-Fi connection for all the usual purposes: But Engadget actually, you know, reads blogs, and found that a Zune engineer had posted a short list of what a Zune can do, and by implication what it can't. When the Zune ships, despite using standard 802.11g, it won't be able to connect to the Internet. You heard me! And it won't be able to sync with a PC wirelessly, either, only via a USB sync cable. By extension, since it can't use Wi-Fi to connect to either a network or a PC, all songs must be downloaded onto a PC and then transferred by USB to the Zune.
So this is a barely wireless player, with its only Wi-Fi features being the exchange of certain kinds of media with certain restrictions among Zune devices using ad hoc networking.
I know that the joke is that Microsoft takes until version 3.0 of any product to get it right, and 4.0 or 5.0 to make it work well, but this is somewhat ridiculous. This now guarantees that if Apple believes Wi-Fi is a worthwhile feature, we will see an iPod with a full-blown, well-implemented Wi-Fi connection before Microsoft can upgrade its firmware for Zune to do more than ad hoc.
For reference, the tiny firm MusicGremlin, was able to release their Wi-Fi music player months ago with full Wi-Fi features and a subscription-based service. Yes, you can connect to the Internet with it. Yes, you can sync wirelessly. Yes, you can exchange music with other subscribers. Its big problem at the moment is its low branding value relative to Microsoft and Apple, and its $300 cost with just 8 GB of hard disk storage. It also doesn't support WPA encryption, which makes it a non-starter for me, since that should be just a software update--and should have been included with its first release.
Microsoft will sell its Wi-Fi-enabled Zune music player for $250: The device will ship Nov. 14 in the US, and feature a 30 GB hard drive and some preloaded content to try out, as well as an FM tuner. A Zune Pass subscription is $15 per month for access to millions of songs in their library during the period of the subscription. Songs are purchased for 79 "points" each, using the Microsoft Points system, which they say is a portable method of storing value across their products.
Zune has Wi-Fi built-in for transferring "samples" between Zune users. Songs can be sent to another user, who can listen to the song three times within three days and then flag it for purchase. I'm still a bit confused about whether Zune Pass subscribers, when they receive a song from another subscriber, then have to enable that song when they're connected to the Internet again.
Zune owners can apparently download and transfer unprotected (Creative Commons, self-ripped, etc.) content, although Microsoft will apparently not allow that content, when transferred over Wi-Fi among Zune devices, to escape the three-day, three-playbacks limit. A Microsoftee working on Zune says that this doesn't modify the file; it's a device-based limit, and he claims this is technically not digital-rights management (DRM), as DRM normally accrues to a file, not device. In related matter, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) noted two weeks ago, the Zune will not play non-Zune protected music, even though it uses Microsoft's own Plays4Sure DRM.
Microsoft will offer a host of accessories, all oddly simply named. They did learn something from their internal "why iPod branding is great and Microsoft overlabels everything" exercise. The Home A/V Pack is $100 for a wireless remote, output cable, sync cable, dock, and ac adapter. The Travel Pack ($100) includes a remote, earphones, bag, sync cable, and AC adapter. The Car Pack ($80) has an FM transmitter and car charger. These items will all be sold separately as well.
A big mistake on Microsoft's part, however, is not defining what comes with a Zune--do I get an AC adapter or any charger cable with the $250 Zune? You have to read footnotes. The Zune comes with a sync cable for charging; the AC adapter is sold outside of the packs noted above for $30. The $250 iPod model comes with a sync cable, earphones, a dock adapter, and a crappy case.
Microsoft will allow songs to be sent via Wi-Fi: People can sample each other's purchased song libraries on the upcoming Zune music player by permission. Songs are allowed to be transferred--another story mentioned that not all songs would work this way--can be listened to three times over three days before being purchased for what's expected to be 99 cents. There will also be a subscription service, the price of which hasn't been announced. It will also let you share photos among Zune users. You can turn off this feature or not accept shared music and photos, too.
One might suspect that the subscription service would allow any song downloaded by subscription to be transferred to any other Zune user who also had a valid and active subscription, no? This is a feature of MusicGremlin, which can transfer songs downloaded via its subscription service to other MusicGremlin subscribers. (While the MG can play other DRM'd content from other services, those songs can't be transferred among users.)
In fact, the answer is no. The Electronic Frontier Foundation read the fine print, and Zune apparently cannot play other Microsoft Play4Sure protected content. Holy mackerel, if that's true, that breaks Microsoft's model for media protection--that all Plays For Sure devices play stuff for sure. Further, BoingBoing analyzes this Microsoftee blog post to realize that Creative Commons-licensed content could be wrapped in protection in order to be played on the devices, which would be a violation of their copyright terms. Medialoper has more detail. (The EFF also notes that the Zune's creator suggests that users could rip video using methods illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, an act that the EFF finds offensive, as do I.) Update: The Zune won't wrap DRM around unprotected content, it turns out, but it will prevent this media from being transferred over Wi-Fi among Zune players without stapling on the three-day, three-playbacks restriction.
Pricing on the Zune is expected to be $250 to $300 with a 30 GB drive, full-screen 3-inch display, FM tuner, and Wi-Fi. It won't work with Macs.
Slim Devices will ship the Transporter next month for audiophiles: the $2,000 streaming media device is designed to handle uncompressed and lossless music formats with aplomb, supporting several forms of digital input and output to integrate with high-end stereo systems. Should I just say it again? High-end. High end, high end, high end. Anyway, if you can hear a pin drop at 1,000 meters, and hear the missing notes on CD recordings, you might want--nay, need--the Transporter. There's a lot of detail on their digital-to-analog converter and the accuracy of their signal timing for those who understand such things. If you do, you're a candidate to buy it.
Along with handling optical, coax, BNC, and XLR digital input and output, and playing back files stored on locally network computers in Apple Lossless, FLAC, and WMA Lossless--along with every uncompressed and compressed format out there--the Transporter includes auto-switching/auto-sensing 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, and 802.11g with dual external antennas. They offer WEP and WPA/WPA2 support (personal flavors).