I want to believe: Reflections on my Zune year

CNET's Donald Bell recounts the highs and lows of life with a Zune and offers some recommendations for improving the MP3 player.

Photo of the worn back of a Zune 80 MP3 player.
After a year of daily abuse without a case, the etching on the back of my Zune 80 is showing its age. The glass screen on the front is still pristine, though, which is more than I can say for my old iPod. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

My Zune 80 hasn't left my side since December of 2007 , after it successfully lured me from my trusty fifth-generation iPod. I invested in the Zune because I wanted to know how the other half lived (or more accurately, the other 4 percent), but the Zune's larger screen, bold user interface, podcast integration, and Zune Pass subscription service didn't hurt, either.

A few weeks passed and I was hooked on the Zune and the all-you-can-eat Zune Pass music subscription. I bought a 4GB Zune for my wife, invested in a Zune Home A/V dock to connect to my home stereo system, and even set up my PC to sync with my Zune wirelessly. Like any new romance, there were some initial hiccups--in this case, buggy software; mismatched album art; music that wouldn't delete; and broken subscription tracks. Eventually, though, I worked out the kinks, and the latest software and firmware upgrades have made life with the Zune experience much better.

There's just one thing: I'm lonely. Hundreds of iPod owners join me on the subway every day--even a few folks playing music on their Blackberries--but I seldom see a Zune. It's my job to help people decide what kind of MP3 player they should buy, but I still wonder if I made the wrong decision buying a Zune. Why can't this MP3 player get any traction?

There's no magic bullet that will make the Zune an instant success. I think Microsoft has the right idea by courting young, dedicated music fans and slowly building cult status. I just don't think they're moving fast enough to keep up with this audience or keep ahead of Apple.

Out of pure self-interest as a Zune user, I present four ideas that I think would make the Zune a better product. Feel free to add your own at the end.

Photo of Slacker G2, Zune 120, and iPod Touch MP3 players.
With a little creativity, Zune (center) can repackage the Channels feature as free, place-shifted Internet radio, just like the Slacker G2 (left). A free Channels option will give users a real taste of the Zune Pass experience, helping Microsoft better market its subscription service and sell more music. By comparison, the iPod Touch (right) offers users free music-streaming Apps, such as Pandora, but you can only listen when you're around a Wi-Fi connection. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

1. Make Zune Channels free

The Zune's latest Channels feature offers playlists of new music that refresh on your device every week. Channels is a killer feature no iPod has; unfortunately, most Zune users don't have Channels either, since you need Microsoft's $15/mo Zune Pass service to get it. I'm a big fan of the Zune Pass, but not everybody can justify $180 a year for a music service (especially with file-sharing still alive and well). For these users, the Channels option on the Zune's main menu is just a daily reminder that they're only getting part of the Zune experience. I understand that Microsoft ideally wants all Zune users signed up for a Zune Pass, but it needs to be rewarding its nascent user base with as many features as possible right out of the box.

Fortunately, there's already a blueprint out there for free, side-loaded music channels: the Slacker G2. Marketed as a portable Internet radio, the Slacker G2 works just like Zune's Channels, downloading user-selected channels of DRM-protected WMA music files directly to the device over Wi-Fi. The Slacker, however, delivers its channels free right out of the box (ad-supported with the option to upgrade to ad-free), while Zune requires a $15 monthly fee.

A free version of Zune Channels would require some restrictions (just like the Slacker service): the playlist order would be shuffled; you couldn't skip tracks more than a specified number of times, and you may have to live with a few short audio ads every 5-10 songs. (Hint, Microsoft: Use this ad platform for promoting the Zune Pass or XBox 360 game titles). You also wouldn't be able to keep the songs unless you exercise your option to purchase the track or you let Microsoft upsell you on the Zune Pass subscription.

The bottom line is that the Zune's Channel feature needs to work right out of the box for all users. If Microsoft plays its cards right, the free version of Channels would generate more sales, more music discovery, and more incentive for users to buy a Zune Pass subscription. Sure, out-of-box Channels would add to Microsoft's licensing complexity, but no one said competing against the iPod would be easy.

Screen shot of emusic listing page.
Online music retailer eMusic does a masterful job of bringing outside-Web resources into its pages (YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr) and allowing users to post eMusic content to other sites. When Microsoft finally decides to open up its Zune Social site, it would do well to mimic eMusic's philosophy. eMusic

2. Open the Social

In the spirit of fostering community among Zune users and facilitating song recommendations between friends, Microsoft has its own music-focused online social network called the Zune Social. It's a fun, free service that showcases what you've been listening to on your Zune and lets you keep tabs on the listening habits of other participating Zune users.

Personally, I think the Zune Social is pretty cool, but I seldom use it because it's so damn limiting. If I buy an MP3 player from Apple, Sony, Samsung, Creative, SanDisk, or any other manufacturer aside from Microsoft, I can upload my listening data to several online social music services that best Zune Social at sharing music with non-Zune friends (iLike, MOG, Lala, and Last.fm--which is owned by CNET parent company, CBS--to name a few). There's no way for me to feed my Zune data from the Social into my other music profiles around the Web, or vice-versa.

I want to see my Zune listening habits displayed loud and proud on my personal blog (more than a cute Zune card, please), and I also want to see my personal blog feed into my Zune Social page. As it stands now, I have a handful of online music profiles (Last.fm, iMeem, MOG) tied to my stagnant iTunes and iPod listening habits, while the Zune Social--a Web site that absolutely none of my friends frequent--hogs my current listening status. As far as my friends know, my taste in music froze in December 2007 on the day I started using a Zune.

Neither Microsoft nor Apple can corral users without imprisoning them. The best these companies can do is maintain a presence everywhere their audience might be--a tactic employed by Rhapsody, eMusic, Lala, and iMeem, and to some extent, Apple, since band Web sites commonly include iTunes download links. Microsoft should go ahead and open up.

Image of Zune wireless screen.
After three years of development, there's still nothing about the Zune's Wi-Fi capabilities that I actually use. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

3. Lose the Wi-Fi

If the Zune lost Wi-Fi, would anyone really care? It's comforting to believe in the myth of the coffee shop techie/slacker/hipster/blogger who has an afternoon to kill wirelessly browsing albums from the Zune Marketplace, but few of us have the time or inclination to use the Zune's wireless features in their current form.

Besides, Zune's Wi-Fi capabilities hurt the player more than they help. Wi-Fi is a total battery zapper, and in an effort to conserve as much battery life as possible, Microsoft threw out features such as EQ control. The power demands of Wi-Fi also prevent Microsoft from exploring other interesting features, such as Bluetooth or integrated noise-cancellation.

During my year of Zune 80 ownership, I've cursed the Zune's dismal battery life much more than I've praised its Wi-Fi capabilities. And although I think the Zune 80 sounds great, I've also heard how amazing music can sound on something like the Sony S-Series Walkman, which has jaw-dropping sound-enhancement controls. I had some initial enthusiasm for the Zune's wireless sync feature, but I eventually reverted back to USB for the sake of increased transfer speeds.

As far as browsing, purchasing, and downloading new music, I'm seldom so desperate for new music that I can't wait until I'm back at my computer. To be fair, the iPod Touch and the iPhone suffer from the same problem, but in their case, third-party apps such as Pandora and Last.fm let you explore and bookmark new songs regardless of how you choose to download them.

It doesn't have to be all or nothing. For users who really want Wi-Fi, Microsoft could always sell a Wi-Fi hardware accessory that plugs into the Zune's proprietary dock connection. An accessory solution wouldn't be as elegant as built-in Wi-Fi, but the trade-off in sound quality and battery life might inspire more converts and the Zune could finally get rid of that goofy plastic window .

Image of Netflix on Boxee.
No one's done it yet, but if you could find a way to load DRM-protected Hulu and Netflix videos onto the Zune, you could really give Apple a run for its money. Boxee

4. Bring on subscription video

The big, gorgeous, glass-covered screens on the Zune 80 and Zune 120 blow away the iPod Classic's puny screen. Unfortunately, the Zune Marketplace video content pales in comparison to offerings at iTunes, which gives iPod owners thousands of blockbuster movies to choose from and the option to rent titles for just a few bucks.

Microsoft has done an admirable job adding popular television content to the Zune Marketplace, but it's still far behind iTunes. At this point, it's not enough to catch-up; Microsoft really needs to leapfrog the iTunes video store if they want to turn heads.

By including support for the DRM-protected WMV video format used by Amazon Video On Demand, Vongo (RIP), and Cinema Now, the Zune is in a excellent position to offer movie and television studios a dependable copy-protected distribution format. If the Zune is going to put the squeeze on Apple, however, it needs more than a secure video format--it needs some partners.

Hulu on a Zune would be a game-changer. Netflix rentals on a Zune would be a game-changer (the Microsoft XBox 360 already has it, in fact). I realize these services only offer video-streaming currently, but if someone as influential as Microsoft stepped in and made the case for secure, ad-supported, DRM-wrapped video downloads, I bet someone would listen. Microsoft needs to stop poorly imitating Apple when it comes to video sales and do something unique that users really want.

Final thoughts

I love my Zune. I want the Zune to succeed. More importantly, I want Apple's iTunes and iPod dynasty to have some real competition so that we, as music consumers, get better products and services.

The trouble is that if the Microsoft wants a leg-up on Apple, it needs to act fast. If Redmond waits until next December, the iPod Touch will have benefited from another year of intense App development and another bump in storage capacity.

Whether you carry an iPod or a Zune, let me hear what you think about the Zune's prospects and what the next step should be.

 

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