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Microsoft Zune: All the excitement that brown can bring

Microsoft has unveiled its Zune portable music and video player -- never mind, there's still time before launch to make it better

The Zuni tribe of Native Americans live in western New Mexico. Ancient and peaceable, they are most notable for their language -- which is unlike any other. They also do a nice line in fetishes, small objects that contain a spirit with a characteristic personality capable of influencing their owners' futures.

The Zune tribe of native Americans, on the other hand, live up in Washington State on the Redmond reservation. Stuck in the past and rather aggressive, they are most notable for their ritual monkey dance and a language that may be related to English. They also have a fetish, a small brown object with its own characteristic spirit personality. Whether it'll influence the future, though, is another matter.

There's the spirit of sharing, which Zune encourages by letting Zunies swap music over a built-in wireless network. But all things must pass -- in this case, within 72 hours. You'll have three days in which to listen to each song three times, at which point it is summoned back to the great server in the sky. Doesn't matter if you're passing your parents a recording you made of your kid being cute -- Zune will banish it. Unless Microsoft is willing to let other companies join in the fun, your chances of sharing anything will be limited by the number of other Zune owners within a 50m radius. Perhaps that's the new digital rights management strategy -- Zero Users, No Exchange.

There's the spirit of all-encompassing capacity, which in Zune's case is limited to 30GB. That may be just the first of many, but coming the day after Apple showed off product at 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, 8GB, 30GB and 80GB, it looks like a one-horse town next to the city of plenty.

Then there's the spirit of time to come. The smart kids grok this -- you can see them listening to radio over their wireless networks (Zune says no), picking up streaming media from blogs (Zune says no), pumping in DivX TV programmes grabbed off the torrents (Zune says no, no, no). Zune wants you to sign up to the Zune zone and do all your dealings there.

It's a platform, not a player, says the chief of the Zunes, clearly shaking his firestick at the iPod. Which doesn't explain why the Apple's got games for sale already -- a subject on which the people of the Zune stay silent. You get to build stuff for platforms, but there's no developers' kit, no shining path for would-be Zune tribe members to pass initiation and take their place on the small screen.

It could all come good. There are plenty of details to come, like price and availability, and perhaps the missing buzz will appear between now and the rumoured November launch date -- although Microsoft shot its bolt with the over-successful teaser campaign for Origami. There may be magic in the Zune that sets it apart from all the other me-too MP3 players but, like the original tribe, I have my reservations. -RG

Update: A preview of the Microsoft Zune is now live in our Reviews channel.