Desperately seeking Zune

The music player is supposed to be all about sharing and socializing. So where is everyone? Photos: In search of Zune pals Map: Looking for Zune love

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
6 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Welcome to the social.

That's the promise Microsoft makes with its new Zune. Unlike the solitary iPods, the digital music player lets you make new friends and discover new music. Using its built-in Wi-Fi, it can send a song to another Zune, and that song can be played up to three times before the recipient has to either buy it or lose it.

Well, it had been two weeks since the Zune had hit stores, and I was ready to sample a stranger's tunes. Equipped with a demonstration unit--courtesy of the folks in Redmond--I set out to try to find some fellow Zunes and their playlists.

San Francisco Zune hunt

I loaded up the device with my music tastes, which I sum up as "something that everyone will hate." With "Zunique" charged up and filled with everything from Juanes to Dixie Chicks to R.E.M. to Roxette, I headed from CNET's offices in downtown San Francisco up two blocks to Market Street, the main thoroughfare in the city.

Along the way, I popped into a Starbucks to see if there were any Zunes amid the Venti Macchiatos, or whatever it is that they serve these days. I quickly checked my player.

"Searching for Zune devices," it said, promisingly.

I waited, hopeful.

"No nearby Zune devices found, or nearby devices have wireless turned off," my device sadly informed me a few seconds later.


About a block away, there was a spot where all the bike messengers hang out. There were a few that were listening to music, but again, no Zunes.

I decided to check out a few places where I knew there would be some Zune action--the retail stores that sell the devices. My first stop was CompUSA.

"No nearby Zunes..." read the already familiar note on my player.

Zune found

There was a brown Zune on display, but it was attracting little attention.

"We haven't sold many," said a CompUSA worker, though he added he liked it better than Apple Computer's iPod.

And, while it was nice to see another Zune, the display models in stores appeared to have their wireless features disabled. Mine was still companionless.

Next on my list was the Virgin Megastore. Here were people thirsting for music, but again, no Zunes in the wild.

There was one guy by the Zune display grabbing a pile of Zune accessories, so I asked him if he already had the player. "I have three," he responded, though none of the devices appeared to be on him.

A little probing revealed that he worked for Microsoft in Zurich. Separately, two European youngsters also stopped by the Zune display in the 10 minutes or so I stuck around.

"I want to check out the Zune," said one.

"We have to buy one" said the other.

Assuming they were headed back to Europe, they face an even tougher time trying to find Zune friends. (The device is currently sold only in the U.S.)

I decided maybe downtown was not avant-garde enough. But, just to cover all the bases, I made one last stop at the Apple store right nearby. Sure, it would be heresy, and a bit foolhardy since the Zune doesn't sync with the Mac. As expected, no Zunes there either.

Oh, well. I should have known better.

I headed for a subway station to ride the local Bay Area Rapid Transit train to another neighborhood. Once underground, I was surrounded by iPod ads on billboards and pillars. Apple had essentially plastered ads to anything that wasn't moving. And many who were moving (my fellow passengers) were also advertising the iPod, because they had its iconic white earbuds plugged into their domes.

I hopped off the BART train in the heart of the Mission District, a neighborhood home to a cross-section of people, from immigrants to young groovy types who might rush out to buy a new digital music player because the iPod was oh-so-2004.

I checked for Zunes frequently as I headed down busy Valencia Street, passing thrift stores and tragically hip coffee shops. I was searching for a particular spot, recommended as the "in" coffee joint.

It was called Ritual Coffee Roasters, and it seemed almost to require a laptop for entry. There was a decidedly Mac bent to the ultrahip crowd, however. There were 19 Mac laptops, along with nine Windows machines. An iPod or two could be spotted, though most of the white headphones were plugged directly into the Macs.

I immediately realized this was probably not where Zunes come to meet. Alas, after a fruitless search, I was right. Still thirsty for some tunes, but refreshed after a spicy chai, I trekked onward.

I made a final stop for the day, passing by a similarly hip place called 12 Galaxies on nearby Mission Street. No signs of Zune life there either.

Exhausted and songless, I decided to call it a night. I hopped on a bus, walked past several iPod-wearing teens, and found a seat. I turned on the Zune, put on some music and closed my eyes.

Second round
Daunted, but unwilling to concede defeat, I tried another neighborhood a few days later. The Fillmore, known for its music club of the same name, is also home to an upscale collection of restaurants and shops. I ducked into a Marc Jacobs store and passed by Betsey Johnson. Plenty of fashion, but no Zune.

I ducked inside a nice cafe. A warm fireplace offered an inviting atmosphere, but a quick check of the Zune, and I was again left with a cold loneliness.

Click here to Play

Video: Public's take on Zune
Here is what consumers are saying about the new digital media player.

At the office, Microsoft called to say that it expects to have sold 1 million Zunes by the end of June.

"That's great," I thought. "But what about me, now?"

It is a problem for early buyers, an analyst agreed.

"It's tough right now, because there aren't other Zune users to play with, or they are few and far between," IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian said, commiserating with my plight.

I didn't give up. Two days later and with my deadline for this article approaching, I was getting worried. It had been a week since my quest had begun, and I had yet to see another Zune.

I hopped on the subway to head into the office and went through the familiar Zune routine. Menu...Community...nearby.

This time, I did not see the familiar rejection notice. Was I dreaming?

Nearby: "I am a Lengend."

There was another Zune. "I should send them a song," I thought. But what? I quickly settled on R.E.M's "Begin the Begin."

"Lost connection," my Zune reported. "0 of 1 songs sent to I Am a Lengend."

"This can't be," I thought. I'd come too far, pounded too much pavement, had too much chai to get this close and not find a Zunemate.

I decided to pace the aisle of the subway car and try and find this other Zune. At the very end of the car, I saw it. A man had his Zune on end and was watching a video.

Awkward moment.

"I notice you have a Zune," I said. The man looked up from his episode of the Family Guy and nodded.

"Well, I have one too. And I've been going all over town and, well, you're the first one I've found," I said.

The man, a business center manager named Bernardo Lebron, said he hadn't seen any others either. It was kind of a bummer, he said, since the wireless feature was a key reason he bought the device, along with its bigger-than-iPod-size screen.

He had expected it to be more of an instant hit. "I was kind of surprised," he said later of the Zune encounter. "I haven't seen anybody with it."