Watch out consumers, here comes Steve Ballmer! You may already have seen the man's near-psychotic performance at a developers' conference where he chanted "Developers! Developers! Developers!" while dashing around the stage like a shaved gorilla on crystal meth. That's going to change with Zune -- soon you'll see the man shouting "Communities! Communities! Communities!" until they get the jacket laced up at the back again.
We know that Zune is going to be Microsoft's attack on the iPod juggernaut. We don't know much else. But of the many rumours -- built-in games with a clip-on joystick, satellite radio that won't work in Europe, automatic conversion of iTunes collections -- the one that stands out as a new idea is wireless file sharing. That one concept breaks the isolation that personal music has created ever since the Walkman, and makes you part of a community. And that's powerful stuff.
Wireless and digital music players go together so well that it's criminal Apple has ignored wireless for so long. If you've got an iPod, you've got broadband. If you've got broadband, you've got Wi-Fi. So what's with the cable plugged into the back of the computer? What's even more frustrating is the way Apple has added audio to its AirPort wireless access point: plug it into your stereo, and you can play your iTunes songs from your PC over the network. You can't do that with the iPod. But the PC has its own speakers so it doesn't need this half as much as the 'Pod.
But the big thing you get with wireless is other people. It's the most natural thing in the world to share music: you've got something you think is good, you play it to a friend, and if they like it you give them a copy. Like humming a tune in the street: it's not a licenced use of the music but humans do it anyway. And perhaps -- only perhaps -- the Zune will be a bit more human than the iPod.
It's an engaging idea, sharing music just by getting close enough to someone to pick up their playlist over the air. Or sitting in the pub, going through your pal's portable collection and nabbing the stuff you've been meaning to check out. No cables, no fuss. There's a poster advertising a new band: if you pause for more than ten seconds in front of it, the sampler's already on your Zune. Even better: the poster tells you there were ten people like you today who did the same thing and like the same music and here's a link to a forum, if you want to talk to them. A community of like minds, free if you're hooked in, impossible if you're not.
The technology's all there. Wireless makes it easy. Whether Microsoft will make it hard again -- your guess is as good as anyone's. It could be a flat-rate service that for a tenner a month will let you download and share as much as you like, providing you share only with other service subscribers. It could be a music shop that only lets you share clips. It could be so larded about with DRM and copy protection that you'd be better off humming into a cassette recorder.
There's another possibility. If Zune is based on Windows (it's not going to be Linux now, is it?), then it'll be easy to hack. We've seen how Sony still can't tie down the PSP to keep it free of software the company doesn't like, and the PSP's operating system is much cleaner than Windows CE. Microsoft might not mind too much: a hacked Zune might bypass some revenue streams, but it will also be something that the company would willingly spend millions to get. It would be cool.
Ah, such fantasies. If Microsoft repeats, of course, we'll end up with a battery-guzzling piece of porta-bloat with all the shareable charisma of halitosis. For every way that the company can get Zune right, there are ten ways for it to fail. Let's hope for the best -- better toys are always welcome, and better toys that remind Apple to come up with some new ideas are more welcome than most. -Rupert Goodwins