Microsoft unveiled the Zune this week, as I'm sure most of you now know. The player's release could be described only as disappointing--sales were reportedly almost nonexistent, and a bevy of technology writers had come forward even before the Zune hit shelves to tear it to pieces. Now, some of the criticism is undeserved. The Zune is, in fact, a fairly decent piece of hardware.
Where most people start to object to the Zune is in its philosophy. The player is tied to a brand-new, Microsoft-developed "ecosystem"--the Zune Marketplace. The Marketplace sells songs in a restricted, Zune-exclusive format (of course) that won't play on, essentially, any other digital audio player, and certainly not on the much more widespread iPod. The Zune itself isn't even compatible with Microsoft's own Plays For Sure DRM scheme, which Microsoft helped develop as a way to try to counter the iPod's dominance.
Basically, Microsoft created a scenario in which millions of happy iPod, Cowon, Creative, SanSisk, Rhapsody, Napster, Real Music, and MSN Music users woke up and said, "Wait a second. I have to get music in another format? What about all this music I already have? What about all the songs I got at MSN Music, for crying out loud?" Where Microsoft has gone totally awry with the Zune and its Marketplace is to emulate the worst element of the iPod/iTunes integration: the walled-garden, restrictive, recursive DRM part. And in doing so, I think they'll find, looking back, that they only served to accelerate the average consumer's ultimate rejection of proprietary media.
The Zune and Zune Marketplace are simply the wrong answer to the iPod at the wrong time. The reason people flocked to the iPod in unprecedented droves had nothing to do with its closed ecosystem and everything to do with the fact that buying songs on iTunes was brain-dead simple, and syncing those songs to their iPods was even easier. The gadget looked good, the software worked well, and it would, back when the iPod was introduced, be years before many people started looking for different players and noticing that their massive libraries of iTunes songs were suddenly obsolete. But the tide is starting to turn.
fair-use rights), resentment is building. It's a very, very bad time to ride in with yet another restrictive, brand-new DRM scheme, and Microsoft missed a golden opportunity to move technology forward with a more open, flexible format based on killer hardware instead of a clunky, overprotected media store. Make no mistake: if you've invested any time at all in legally obtaining a digital music library, whether you've been using iTunes, Rhapsody, or even DRM-free eMusic, Microsoft has given you absolutely zero reason to buy the Zune.
We're figuring out that DRM isn't the best way to buy. And Microsoft can put the nail in the coffin in two, three, or five years when they end support for Plays For Sure formats--making sure all those tunes you bought while they were trying to attack Apple with Plays For Sure are just money wasted. In a few years, when we're all enjoying digitally watermarked music that, while it can't be plopped onto an illegal sharing site, can be played on any device, shared with a few friends or family members thanks to well-formed personal-use exemptions in U.S. copyright law, and inexpensive, flexible-format digital music stores give us no incentive to pirate music from seedy, virus- and porn-infested sharing sites, we'll look back on the Zune as the moment we all shook off our digital music stupor and said, "Whoa, wait a second. Why would we pay for this?"