Microsoft's soon-to-be-released Zune MP3 player is a sure-fire iPod killer -- if you believe what you been reading in the press recently.
There's nothing the press likes more than a good fight, and the Zune looks like a worthy contender for the iPod's heavyweight crown.
The tech press loves the Zune because of its specs. They tally up the features and conclude the Zune is better because there's more stuffed inside.
When it launches next month, the Zune will cost $250 for 30 GB -- just like the equivalent iPod. But the Zune also has Wi-Fi for wirelessly trading songs; a larger, 3-inch screen (good for widescreen movies); and will connect to Microsoft's Zune Marketplace music service, which will sell songs at 99 cents each and offer a $15 a month subscription plan.
The Zune will definitely have an impact. That's guaranteed by Microsoft's clout, and is why music labels, movie studios and accessory makers are jumping on the Zune bandwagon.
But although the Zune looks good on paper, it's not going to kill the iPod because of three things:
1. It's not cool and never will be.
The iPod is streets ahead in the things that really matter: ease of use, aesthetics and -- here's the tough one -- cool. The Zune is not cool. You can tell that at a glance. Take the choice of colors. It'll come in black, white and brown.
Wait a sec -- brown? Surely this is some sick joke gone horribly wrong. Or are they trying to rip off LG's Chocolate phone?
The Zune's best bet is waiting it out until the iPod becomes passé, which seems unlikely given that Apple is constantly redesigning and refreshing the device.
2. The Zune will be locked down tighter than the queen's knickers.
The Zune's interesting features -- Wi-Fi sharing and the music subscription plan -- will be subject to a strict digital rights management scheme, and given Microsoft's reputation in this area (PlaysForShit) -- I'll bet the Zune will drive customers to the iPod.
After all, PlaysForSure is such a technical and marketing disaster Microsoft is abandoning it altogether in favor of the Zune, which will attempt to tightly integrate hardware, software and services, just like the iPod.
But whereas Apple's FairPlay digital rights management scheme seems to be working very well (surprisingly, there aren't widespread reports of glitches and problems), Microsoft's penchant for complex and glitchy verification systems bode ill for the device.
3. Wi-Fi song sharing will not catch on in public.
The Zune's only original feature is Wi-Fi song sharing, which will allow Zune owners to search for others nearby and temporarily trade songs over the air. Traded tunes will be playable up to three times over three days, and can be flagged on the player for later purchase online. Otherwise they disappear.
But while it's obvious that sharing songs will be fun with friends at school or college, it's not an activity that will take off in public. It'll largely be confined to peer groups.
How do I know this? Because that's what's happening with iTunes music sharing, which does more or less the same thing with a computer over a network, instead of peer-to-peer.
Think of the typical experience with iTunes at the office or conferences. Instead of finding all kinds of cool new bands, you marvel at the dreadful taste of your co-workers.
Granted, offices and conferences aren't the best feeding grounds, but where is? There are no hip cafes or bars that I know forging reputations for being good places to hang out and browse other peoples' music libraries.
Will this happen wirelessly with the Zune? Will teenagers gather at the mall or the park to share tunes, sitting around quietly with their headphones on?
I don't see it. It will happen at concerts and clubs where like-minded music lovers will share music they already know they like -- and it'll be kinda awkward and nerdy. Remember swapping business cards with your Palm Pilot via infrared?
And while it might be interesting to take a sneak peek at what the thug at the back of the bus is listening to, it won't be a great strategy for discovering new music. There just won't be enough Zune users around.
The only place I can think of in the United States where the Zune might be good for browsing others' music is on an airplane. But will the airlines allow wireless song sharing mid-flight?
Plus, iTunes shows that many people are so self-conscious of their music collections, they will turn off sharing altogether or carefully prune their library to present themselves in the best possible light.
Wi-Fi song sharing will be more about managing your image in public than sharing music.
But of course, for a lot of people, that's the point: Music-clerk types will show off their bona fides by loading their Zune with obscure indie bands, while the rest of us will be frantically deleting treasured show tunes for fear of looking ridiculous.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006