Something wonderful has happened with Microsoft's Zune platform this year. No, I'm not talking about market share: the Zune is still stuck in third place with just 3 percent of the market for portable MP3 players. And no, I'm not talking about any huge consumer movement to subscription-based services, though I've always felt that the Zune Pass model that Microsoft offers is one that would be popular with consumers.

No, as I write this in late 2008, Apple still has a vice-like grip on the digital music industry, though that company has its own problems, mostly with the record companies that can't stand how much power Apple wields. In this market, Microsoft is still the also-ran, and there's no visible sign that its third generation Zune platform will do much to turn the tide.

What I'm sensing, and seeing, however, in my experiences with the Zune 3 platform is a sudden sense of Zen-like peace and maturity. Now, like never before, the Zune is a viable alternative to Apple's ubiquitous iPod ecosystem. What's odd is that Microsoft hasn't had to do much to make it happen. Its devices are solid, if largely unchanged from last year. The PC software is excellent, and actually quite a bit better than what Apple offers, but that's been true for a year as well. Microsoft's online services are getting better and better, and the software giant is putting people with similar listening habits together in ways that Apple can only dream of. Not that Apple has ever been interested in customer feedback, of course.

And that, really, is the difference: While Apple talks about how much it loves music, the Zune is in fact the better platform for those people who really do love music. That Microsoft was able to steal the higher ground away from Apple so effectively is somewhat amusing, especially when you realize that this sea change has nothing to do with a natural aversion to Apple's market power. It has to do with the fact that Microsoft--and not Apple-- understands how music can and should be a social experience. With Apple, it's all about the white earbud zombies in their own worlds and features like "Genius" that use cold algorithms to dictate what you should listen to. On the Microsoft side, there's an almost hippie-like casualness to the ways in which you can discover music alongside other Zune users, all while benefitting from the musical tastes and recommendations of real humans.

Put simply, the Zune approach is warmer, friendlier, and ultimately more music-centric. And I like it. I like it quite a bit.

Third time's a charm: A look at the new Zune platform

As with the second generation Zune (see my review), Microsoft's Zune 3 platform consists of three key pieces, the Zune hardware, the Zune PC software, and the Zune online services, which include Zune Marketplace (and Zune Pass subscription), and the Zune Social. All three work hand in hand, of course, and if you're looking for the best Zune experience, you're going to want to participate in each facet of this platform.

Last year, Microsoft released a major update to the Zune device hardware lineup, shipping two then all-new form factors, including a smaller flash-based design (that shipped in 4 GB and 8 GB variants in 2007) and a larger 80 GB hard drive-based design. (Prior to that, Microsoft sold a 30 GB hard drive-based device.) This year, in a move that I must admit I found somewhat alarming at first, Microsoft did not update the hardware at all. That is, the company still ships two lines of flash- and hard drive-based Zunes, and the form factors of those devices have not changed at all since last year.

The Zune PC software, too, was dramatically updated last year. This year, Microsoft updated the software in the second quarter to version 2.5 (see my review) and now, with the Zune 3 platform, we of course get the 3.0 update. This evolution to the 2.x software line is better than ever and while it looks and feels much like its predecessors, improvements abound.

On the online services front, improvements have also been made across the board. Zune Marketplace was previously updated to support videos, and while we don't get any new content types in 3.0 (let alone movie purchases or subscriptions), we do get a healthy helping of new functionality that is arguably more important to Zune's target audience of music lovers. Zune Social, too, has been updated and more effectively integrated into the PC software. And both Zune Marketplace and Zune Social are now very thoroughly integrated into the Zune devices too. It's a very holistic update and, like I noted earlier, you can sense a certain maturity here as little functional holes from previous release are now closed off for good. Put simply, everything is coming together.

Next, we'll look at these pieces individually.