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Himeji Castle

There Is Only Zune

Microsoft officially launched their Zune portable music player recently, and it's... okay. The first model that was shown is a 30GB hard drive device, with a 3-inch QVGA (320x240) screen that supports MP3, WMV, H264, and MPEG-4 formats. Nothing surprising there, but a nifty additional feature is that it uses Wi-Fi to communicate wirelessly with other Zune users, and supports sharing of files over this link. While this is enough to get some people smiling and saying "Arrrrrrr me hearties" it does have a significant limit to it - music files are wrapped in "timebomb" DRM that causes the files to expire after three days or three plays, whichever comes first. Once again we have a cool feature that is bludgeoned into a slightly smelly pulp by the paranoid hammer of big media. I'm not exactly sure whether the Zune wraps every file with its icky DRM, and whether renaming foo.mp3 to foo.jpg and sharing it would get around it, but I'm fairly sure creepy guys are going to wirelessly Zune pictures of their cajones to your little sister on the train each morning.

An interesting side note is that music with a Creative Commons license is expressly prohibited from being wrapped up in someone else's DRM system, which makes the Zune's auto-DRMing a little bit naughty. Legally challenging Microsoft on this might be a long shot, but it's a task that the Creative Commons hippies would probably relish. The Zune also doesn't use Microsoft's long-standing PlaysForSure DRM toxic waste currently used in stores like Napster, Urge and Yahoo Music, instead using its own Zune store and presumedly, its own Zune DRM system. Microsoft have said they will continue a "peaceful co-existence" with their PlaysForSure peeps, which I'm fairly sure can be extended to "It's very quiet and peaceful in a coffin six feet underground." The lesson for consumers in all this is don't buy DRMed music, as you never know when the company that made it will decide that it's just not cool anymore.

It's fairly hard to not mention the iPod when talking about the Zune. The design, the features, the Zune store - it's all aimed at Apple in a pretty obvious fashion. The Zune has an FM radio and Wi-Fi, but the Apple has many more player models and an enormous userbase, with a number of them shackled into Apple's DRM system. Not as many as you'd think though, with a recent Jupiter music study discovering that only 5% of tracks on iPods come from online stores. This low number means that iPod owners could easily switch to Zunes if they felt like it, but it also shows that music stores might just be irrelevant in the media player landscape. Still, even the idea of losing one single purchased track does tend to rankle, even to beret-wearing Kopi Luwak drinkers. Scott and I have talked a lot about the iPod a lot over the last few years, mostly using the word "sucks" in our sentences, but we were always a bit too ferocious, as we were far more acutely aware of the device's limitations than most people. For most people, an iPod is okay, just like the Zune is okay. I won't be buying either, unless I have a bad day and buy a Zune to say up yours to Apple.

Microsoft is going to bring the noise with the Zune, though. You're going to get sick of the sight of the damn things, and completely over the Zune store, the Zune theme, Zune cars and even Zune phones. It's going to be Zune this and Zune that, and more Zune than a Zune Zune. They did it with the Xbox, and although they're a long way from knocking Sony off their perch, they now own a decent slice of the console market. They'll leverage Windows, Vista, Xbox Live, the Xbox 360, and Live Anywhere, and they'll spray a tonne of money around getting their message out there. They may not take all of the iPod's market share, but I'm fairly sure they'll take a significant chunk of it. After all, J Allard is on the case, and he's extreme.