Microsoft is probably the greenest company in all of high tech. Not green in the environmental sense — green with envy.
Microsoft is so jealous of the iPod’s success that Tuesday it will unveil a new music system — pocket player, jukebox software and online music store — that’s an unabashed copy of Apple’s. It’s called Zune.
The amazing part is that it’s Microsoft’s second attempt to kill the iPod. The first was PlaysForSure — a gigantic multiyear operation involving dozens of manufacturers and online music stores. Microsoft went with its trusted Windows strategy: If you code it, the hardware makers will come (and pay licensing fees).
And sure enough, companies like Dell, Samsung and Creative made the players; companies like Yahoo, Rhapsody, Napster and MTV built the music stores.
But PlaysForSure bombed. All of them put together stole only market-share crumbs from Apple. The interaction among player, software and store was balky and complex — something of a drawback when the system is called PlaysForSure.
“Yahoo might change the address of its D.R.M. server, and we can’t control that,” said Scott Erickson, a Zune product manager. (Never mind what a D.R.M. server is; the point is that Microsoft blames its partners for the technical glitches.)
Is Microsoft admitting, then, that PlaysForSure was a dud? All Mr. Erickson will say is, “PlaysForSure works for some people, but it’s not as easy as the Zune.”
So now Microsoft is starting over. Never mind all the poor slobs who bought big PlaysForSure music collections. Never mind the PlaysForSure companies who now find themselves competing with their former leader. Their reward for buying into Microsoft’s original vision? A great big “So long, suckas!”
It was bad enough when there were two incompatible copy-protection standards: iTunes and PlaysForSure. Now there will be three.
(Although Microsoft is shutting its own PlaysForSure music store next week, it insists that the PlaysForSure program itself will live on.)
Microsoft’s proprietary closed system abandons one potential audience: those who would have chosen an iPod competitor just to show their resentment for Apple’s proprietary closed system.
To make matters worse, you can’t use Windows Media Player to load the Zune with music; you have to install a similar but less powerful Windows program just for the Zune. It’s a ridiculous duplication of effort by Microsoft, and a double learning curve for you.
So how is the Zune? It had better be pretty incredible to justify all of this hassle.
As it turns out, the player is excellent. It can’t touch the iPod’s looks or coolness, but it’s certainly more practical. It’s coated in slightly rubberized plastic, available in white, black or brown — yes, brown. It won’t turn heads, but it won’t get fingerprinty and scratched, either. It sounds just as good as the iPod.
The Zune matches the price ($250) and capacity of the 30-gigabyte iPod. But it’s noticeably thicker (0.6 inch vs. 0.4), taller (4.4 inches vs. 4.1) and heavier (5.6 ounces vs. 4.8). Battery life is the same for music playback (14 hours), slightly better for video (4 hours vs. 3.5). The three-inch screen has the same 320-by-240-pixel resolution, but it’s larger (3 inches vs. 2.5), so movies and slide shows feel more expansive.
What looks like an iPod scroll wheel, though, is a fakeout. It doesn’t turn, and it’s not touch-sensitive. Instead, it’s just four buttons hidden under the compass points of a plastic ring.
Scrolling accelerates as you press the top or bottom button, but the iPod’s wheel is much more efficient. On the other hand, the Zune’s left and right buttons jump between menus (for example, Album, Artist, Genre) with less backtracking. The software design is beautiful, simple and graced by brief, classy animations.
The Zune’s screen is taller than it is wide — unlike the iPod’s — so you can see more of your lists without scrolling. But it’s all wrong for photos and videos. So when videos or photos play, the screen image rotates, meaning you have to turn the player 90 degrees. And just as on the iPod, portrait-oriented photos are now shrunken, crammed the wrong way on the horizontal screen.
The Zune has a built-in FM radio receiver, and even shows the name of the current song, if the station broadcasts it. Reception is fairly weak, the headphones must be plugged in to serve as an antenna, and you can’t make recordings.
The big, whomping Zune news, though, is wireless sharing. The Zune has a built-in Wi-Fi antenna. (Turning it on costs you one hour of battery life.)
During the playback of any photo or song, you can view a list of Zunes within 30 feet. Sending a song takes about 15 seconds, a photo 2 seconds; you can’t send videos at all.
Your lucky recipient can accept or decline your offering — and, if you have really terrible taste, can block your Zune permanently.
It all works well enough, but 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?
Microsoft also faces what’s known as the Dilemma of the First Guy With a Telephone: Who you gonna call? The Zune will have to rack up some truly amazing sales before it’s easy to find sharing partners.
Microsoft is leaving nothing to chance here. The Zune will be available in 30,000 stores nationwide — versus 10,000 for the iPod, Microsoft says. Zune commercials will run several times during each episode of popular TV shows, bearing the slogan “Welcome to the social.” (Either there’s a noun missing there, or they’re using “social” as a noun, as in “ice cream social.”)
The bigger problem, though, is the draconian copy protection on beamed music (though not photos). You can play a transmitted song only three times, all within three days. After that, it expires. You’re left with only a text tag that shows up on your PC so that — how convenient! — you can buy the song from Microsoft’s store.
This copy protection is as strict as a 19th-century schoolmarm. Just playing half the song (or one minute, whichever comes first) counts as one “play.” You can never resend a song to the same friend. A beamed song can’t be passed along to a third person, either.
What’s really nuts is that the restrictions even stomp on your own musical creations. Microsoft’s literature suggests that if you have a struggling rock band, you could “put your demo recordings on your Zune” and “when you’re out in public, you can send the songs to your friends.” What it doesn’t say: “And then three days later, just when buzz about your band is beginning to build, your songs disappear from everyone’s Zunes, making you look like an idiot.”
Microsoft says that the wireless sharing is a new way to discover music. But you can’t shake the feeling that it’s all just a big plug for Microsoft’s music store. If it’s truly about the joy of music discovery, why doesn’t Microsoft let you buy your discoveries from any of the PlaysForSure stores?
The Zune offers some niceties you can’t get on the iPod. For example, any photo can be the menu background. Album artwork automatically fills the entire screen during playback. You can “flag” any song or photo for future reference on your PC. You can plug the Zune into an Xbox 360 and use its controller to play what’s on your Zune through your entertainment system.
But the opposite list — features the iPod has that the Zune doesn’t — could stretch to Steve Ballmer’s house and back 10 times.
At the very attractive but dog-slow Zune store, for example, you can either buy songs ($1 each) or rent them (unlimited songs for $15 a month). But Microsoft’s store doesn’t sell TV shows, movies or audio books. The music catalog is much smaller — 2 million vs. 3.5 million on iTunes — a fact that Microsoft ham-handedly tries to conceal by listing stuff that it doesn’t actually sell, like Beatles albums.
The Zune store is also missing gift certificates, allowances, user-submitted playlists and so on. And believe it or not, the Zune store doesn’t let you subscribe or download podcasts. (Maybe Microsoft just couldn’t bring itself to type the word “pod.”)
The Zune 1.0 player is pretty barren, too. It doesn’t have a single standard iPod amenity: no games, alarm clock, stopwatch, world clock, password-protected volume limiter, equalizer, calendar, address book or notes module.
Incredibly, you can’t even use the Zune as an external hard drive, as you can with just about every other player on earth — an extremely handy option for carting around big computer files.
Naturally, you also miss out on the 3,000 iPod accessories: speaker systems, microphones, cases, home and auto adapters, remote controls and so on. Over 80 percent of 2007 cars will have an iPod connector option — zero for Zune. And there’s only one Zune model; there’s no equivalent of the iPod Nano or Shuffle.
Competition is good and all. But what, exactly, is the point of the Zune? It seems like an awful lot of duplication — in a bigger, heavier form with fewer features — just to indulge Microsoft’s “we want some o’ that” envy. Wireless sharing is the one big new idea — and if the public seems to respond, Apple could always add that to the iPod.
Then again, this is all standard Microsoft procedure. Version 1.0 of Microsoft Anything is stripped-down and derivative, but it’s followed by several years of slow but relentless refinement and marketing. Already, Microsoft says that new Zune features, models and accessories are in the pipeline.
For now, though, this game is for watching, not playing. It may be quite a while before brown is the new white.