Microsoft Zune

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Microsoft has been the dominant force in computer software for so long, so it's had a really hard time with Apple's supremacy in the digital music space. Microsoft first tried to go after the iPod/iTunes juggernaut by providing the backbone software for a coalition of digital media companies: Creative, iriver, Samsung and others on the hardware side; Napster and even competitors such as Yahoo! and RealNetworks on the software side. It teamed with music muscle MTV Networks to build the smartest service of them all, Urge. But marketing never followed Urge's soft launch, and it's still foundering. Unable to lead an ever-changing band of ornery partners, Microsoft finally decided that the only way to go after Apple was to go it alone.

Microsoft conceived the Zune as an answer to iPod, with attractive similarities as well as key features that the iPod lacks. It is very much like an iPod — at $250, the 30GB music and video player is the same price as an iPod, only a little larger in size. And, like iTunes, the Zune software combines a media organizer and an Internet music download store. The so-called "iPod killer" additions are wireless connectivity for Zune-to-Zune sharing of music samples, a movie-friendly wide screen, and an "all you can eat" monthly music download plan.

The Zune follows in the footsteps of the successful Xbox, but unlike the videogame business, where there are only a few companies capable of launching a platform at any given time, the Zune enters a field already littered with MP3 players. Nearly every MP3 player that's not an iPod can connect to a monthly subscription service: any new flash player from Samsung, iriver, SanDisk or Creative will synch with Napster, RealNetworks' Rhapsody, Yahoo's Y! Unlimited or MTV Urge. In fact, even Samsung's newest Cingular phone, appropriately dubbed the Sync, can do this.

So the question isn't what can the Zune do that the iPod can't do, but what can the Zune do that all the other non-iPods can't? Microsoft's answer is wireless connectivity. It's not a bad idea: You're listening to a song and think, hey, I should send this track to my friend. You click on the song's name, then select "Send." Nearby Zunes are quickly listed, and you select your friend, who then clicks OK to permit the download. In seconds, the entire song is transferred. Your friend has three days to listen to it up to three times before the song turns into a pumpkin, albeit a pumpkin your friend can then go and buy at the Zune Marketplace.

I'm not opposed to turning youth into little guerrilla marketers. It beats thievery and is more honest than many other marketing ploys. It's just that it's a chicken-and-egg proposition: it might take a long time before there are enough Zunes around for this to be more than a once-in-a-blue-moon situation. There are also some issues that will, hopefully, be resolved in time. For instance, if you want to share the song you're listening to, or even any other song while you're listening, your tune will stop playing for the transfer. Also, even if both Zune users have all-you-can-eat monthly plans, the three-day, three-play rule remains in effect. And even songs with no rights-management, ones you ripped from storebought CDs, are slapped with the limitation as well. However, like an iPod, you can synch your Zune to your friend's PC and download as many songs as you like.

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