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Published in the January 2007 Issue (#12) Podcast User Magazine (Download)
Podcasting was a niche area, albeit a fairly small one, until Apple in their infinite wisdom decided to add podcasting support to iTunes. With one swoosh of Appleâ€™s magic wand, thousands of podcasts were available to the masses in a way that was much more accessible than it had been. You no longer had to know anything about RSS or have to fathom out what an aggregator was. Couple that with the iPod, undoubtedly the most popular portable audio player, and you have a combination thatâ€™s hard to beat.
Microsoft has missed the boat on more than one occasion: They underestimated the enormous potential of the internet, giving their competitors a huge head start. This time Microsoft is on their scooter, pushing hard to catch up yet again, seeking to eke out a slice of the portable audio pie with their Zune portable music player. Let me say at the outset that I do not have a Zune and am basing this overview on other usersâ€™ feedback and on internet reports. I did approach Microsoftâ€™s press agency to secure a review unit but was told it was currently only available in the US. I will, however, try to secure a unit upon its launch in Canada to do a follow-up, hands-on article.
A cursory look at the Zuneâ€™s specifications shows it to be a very capable music and video player. Indeed, with a three-inch colour display, itâ€™s more than adequate to view movies on the go. A 30-gigabyte hard disk enables you to store up to 7500 songs, 25,000 pictures or 100 hours of video. It also has wireless networking, allowing you to share media files, and it has an FM radio receiver. Itâ€™s available in three colours â€“ black, white and the more interesting brown model that has been stirring up a considerable amount of interest. So on the surface, the Zune looks like an excellent music player that holds up pretty well in looks when compared with the iPod.
The Zune software is Microsoftâ€™s equivalent to iTunes and accesses Microsoftâ€™s Zune Marketplace. The software will function only on Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or on Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2. No other operating systems are currently supported, and that includes, surprisingly enough, the newest Microsoft operating system, Windows Vista, although I believe the recently released Zune update has done something to alleviate these problems. Even though I didnâ€™t have the Zune itself, I thought it would be interesting to install the software to see what artists were available, and although I had Service Pack 2 installed on my PC, the software still insisted that I needed an update. Once I performed the update, the software installed fine.
Running the software for the first time, I was prompted that the system wanted to do a download of the catalog. This went on for a long time. I left the machine at around the 20-minute mark and it was still going. I only got back to the machine the following day, and unfortunately my machine had reset itself due to a power outage. I relaunched the Zune software, and it had obviously remembered where it was up to, as I was now prompted to create a user account. Not only did I need to create a Zune account, I also needed a Microsoft Live account. Fortunately, my Hotmail account worked just fine. This initial registration probably took 20 minutes or so.
Scanning my laptop, which didnâ€™t have much music on it, the software found five albums, and they played as was to be expected, without a hitch. I searched for several popular artists in the Zune marketplace, and they were all available, so at first glance, it looks like the catalog is pretty extensive. I have to admit, however, Iâ€™m not a great fan of the Zune softwareâ€™s user interface. It looks very sparse, and the software itself is very unresponsive. My laptop is by no means a state-of-the-art machine, but itâ€™s no slouch either, with its 1.7 gigahertz processor.
The Zune software currently has no support for podcasts. This isnâ€™t to say you canâ€™t copy podcasts onto to your Zune device and listen to them, but it is not a patch on the iTunes-iPod integration. This is a major failing if you are used to the iTunes way of doing things. For me, however, this isnâ€™t a major drawback, as I currently copy podcasts manually to my PocketPC, so the Zune would be a natural replacement for the way I currently do things.
One of the most worrying things about the Zune is the absolutely awful byline Microsoft are using for their advertising: â€˜Welcome to the Socialâ€™. This may sound great in the US, but in the UK, the â€˜Socialâ€™ is where people go to sign for their unemployment benefits. I canâ€™t believe no-one at Microsoft raised this as a possible problem.
That byline, though, is the least of their worries. For me, the biggest drawback is the Zuneâ€™s best feature: wireless networking, enabling the sharing of tracks. Whilst digital rights management, or DRM, is considered by some a necessary evil, I have no problem with it, as I choose not to buy from places that enforce DRM of any kind. However, the Zune takes DRM to a whole new, rather uncomfortable level. If you send a music track over to another Zune, or â€˜squirt itâ€™, as Steve Balmer, Microsoftâ€™s CEO, likes to say, the recipient Zune can play the track only three times, or for three days, whichever comes first. Thatâ€™s fine if the track has been purchased and has DRM protection, but Microsoft in their infinite wisdom have decided to enforce DRM even on freely available MP3 tracks – that includes music and podcasts – which is potentially a breach of these worksâ€™ Creative Commons or similar licences. Yes, you read me right: If you were to send a copy of my Indie Launchpad podcast from one Zune to another, the recipient would have three days to listen to it, or three plays, whichever came first, as the Zune adds its own DRM to the file you sent.
Adding DRM in this way is especially interesting, given the fact that Bill Gates was recently reported to have told an influential group of bloggers that copy protection for digital music and video is too complex for consumers to understand. Thatâ€™s an understatement. It is surprising, however, that Microsoft has all but abandoned their PlaySure DRM, which is used by Napster, and has gone about yet again reinventing the DRM wheel. This has not gone down well with manufacturers who built devices compatible with the PlaySure standard.
The Zuneâ€™s addition of DRM to an otherwise free file is totally unacceptable and is, for me, a total sale breaker. Having said that, though, I have discovered that there are ways to circumvent these kinds of restrictions. Whilst not the most intuitive methods, they do work and give your Zune capabilities that Microsoft deemed verboten. Gizmodo has a couple of useful articles that could prove useful reading if you are a Zune user or are considering a Zune and need this kind of functionality. Be forewarned that these tips havenâ€™t been tried by Podcast User Magazine, and we accept no responsibility for fried Zune players. That being said, many users seem to have successfully implemented the tips in those articles.
The Zune has been out for only a few months, and Microsoft has already issued a firmware update for it. This update addresses some of the compatibility problems with Vista and also improves performance, but it adds no new features. Leo Laporte, tech guru extraordinaire, originally gave the Zune a favorable nod, but oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Zune was recently called â€œDoggie dookieâ€ by Laporte in a fairly critical video segment that is available on YouTube. He noted all the shortcomings mentioned here and also revealed the deal Microsoft made with Universal Music, to give them one dollar for each Zune sold. The inference is that Microsoft is admitting that their audio device will be used for pirated music. Microsoftâ€™s agreement with Universal Music could now open a floodgate for all other music labels that will want to renegotiate deals, after their current agreements expire with iTunes, and this can only be a bad thing for the consumer. It does, however, play right into the arms of independent artists, many of whom make their music freely available in MP3 format.
Microsoft has a huge opportunity to make serious inroads on Appleâ€™s iPod market share, but they are going to have to try a lot harder, giving the users the features they want and freeing off some of the restrictions they donâ€™t. Itâ€™s certainly an interesting time for those seeking to purchase an update or new portable media device.