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Microsoft sees Zune as just opening act

Due out Tuesday, Microsoft's music player is the latest in a years-long desire to counter Apple's dominance in the sector.

Culture
Microsoft doesn't expect the Zune to knock the iPod off the stage, but it is counting on the new music player to at least get the company on the playbill.

Microsoft's $250 music player, which goes on sale Tuesday, is the first music player to come directly from the software maker, but it's the latest in Redmond's years-long effort to counter Apple's dominance. After years of battling Apple Computer through an array of partners, Redmond is now taking on Cupertino directly.

"Zune today lacks the elegance of iPod plus iTunes but that's not to say that won't evolve."
--Susan Kevorkian, IDC analyst

"The whole goal behind launch was to build a foundation," said Scott Erickson, a senior director of product management for Microsoft's Zune effort. Erickson would not say how many devices the company expects to sell this holiday season, but said it has planned to produce enough models that those who want a Zune should be able to get their hands on one.

IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian said Microsoft has created a nice-looking music player, but the first effort doesn't take full advantage of the device's built-in wireless connection or its large color screen.

"In the first generation, Zune is all dressed up with no place to go," Kevorkian said. Among the key missing ingredients, she said, are the ability to buy songs on the go and to buy videos at all.

Microsoft, meanwhile, appears to have made a conscious choice to keep it simple. The company has started with a single device, selling only in the U.S. While erstwhile partners such as iRiver and Creative Labs had devices that could act as audio recorders, game players and even digital video recorders, the Zune lacks the ability to do some basics, such as acting as a hard drive.

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Video: Zune zooms into CNET
Editor James Kim got a chance to try out the music player before it hit shelves.

Even a feature as basic as the disk mode, though, adds complexity, Microsoft said. For example, users sometimes get confused between songs that can be played versus those that are transferred to a player only as a file in disk mode. By making the Zune software the only way to move items onto a Zune, Microsoft hopes to eliminate any confusion.

And although Microsoft is starting with a small feature list, Erickson said the company will be able to make additions fairly quickly through software updates. First on that list is compatibility with Windows Vista.

Erickson said that probably won't happen before Vista is made available to large businesses at the end of the month, but should happen well before the software goes on sale to consumers at the end of January.

Also on the nearer-term horizon are support for podcasts, as well as a means to more easily get videos onto the device. Some of the other additions to Zune will take longer, such as new ways of using the Wi-Fi connection built into the device. "The list is definitely long; there's all kinds of cool things that we are talking about," Erickson said. "What if you could listen to a song on the radio and flag it on the device and/or purchase it right from the device? What if you go to a concert and the musician stands up there and says anybody who has a device, take it out and I'll send you a playlist that's only for this concert, or pictures I just took."

For now, the wireless connection is used for just one thing: beaming music and other content to other nearby Zune owners.

There are lots of possibilities of where to go next, but Microsoft is waiting to hear what sounds cool to customers and would-be customers of the first version. The Zune is now Windows-only and will likely stay that way for a while, but Erickson didn't rule out a move into Apple's home territory--the Mac. "We'll definitely look at it," he said. "It's a lot of work for, in relative terms, a small number of customers."

The company does plan to take the Zune international some time next year, though Erickson did not offer a specific time frame or say which countries were tops on Microsoft's list.

In many ways, Microsoft is looking to emulate what made the iPod a hit--start simple and build from there. The company has also adopted Apple's model of handling device, software and service itself--a move that dismayed many of Microsoft's longtime partners.

But even there, Kevorkian said Microsoft has a way to go.

"We think in general the appeal of Zune will be very limited at the outset," Kevorkian said. "Zune today lacks the elegance of iPod plus iTunes, but that's not to say that won't evolve."

By the time Microsoft decided to go ahead with the Zune, the company was in a hurry to get onto the market. The actual Zune hardware is being made by Toshiba and is loosely based on that company's Gigabeat. The Zune Marketplace software, meanwhile, is based on Windows Media Player.

The software maker has said it expects the Zune effort to take time and be expensive, likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and market.

The company said it expects the Zune to be on sale at 30,000 locations, counting both online retailers and store locations. In addition to usual outlets like Circuit City and Best Buy, the Zune will be sold at places like Guitar Center, GameStop and Virgin Megastores.

Erickson said there will be plenty of ads for the Zune, online, on TV, in movie trailers and elsewhere. He didn't put a figure on launch costs, but said that "it's definitely a large investment for us and probably on par with what the Xbox launch was like."

"I think the word will start getting out there," he said.

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