Microsoft augments the Zune platform with a surprisingly rich range of online services. Today, these services--the Zune Marketplace online store, the Zune Social online community, the Zune.net web site, and the Zune Pass music subscription service--are supporting players, and optional for the mainstream Zune users who may enjoy the Zune devices and/or the excellent Zune PC software. But that's all going to change. Looking forward, Microsoft intends to use Zune as its cross-platform entertainment services brand. That means that in the future, we're going to see the Zune brand pop-up in Microsoft's other products, including the Xbox 360, Windows Mobile, and, yes, most likely in Windows as well.

That's exciting stuff, to be sure. And in these final days of the Zune as a standalone product line, we can see the beginnings of that future Zune platform in the online services that Microsoft has already moved into place. I don't want to get ahead of myself here, though it's exciting to think of the ramifications of integrating these services into Microsoft's other platforms, most of which are respectively more viable than is today's Zune. But even today, these online services are surprisingly rich and interesting. The question, of course, is how they compare with the competition, when there is competition. I'd like to examine that question here.

Zune Marketplace

Microsoft introduced its Zune Marketplace online store with the original Zune in late 2006, and it wasn't pretty. The company brought over the terrible Microsoft Points (MP) micropayment system from Xbox Live, forcing users to wonder how much everything cost and perform complex mathematics each time they made a purchase. The selection, at first, was terrible, and consisted solely of music content in that first iteration.

For Zune 2, Microsoft bolstered Zune Marketplace with podcasts, and it added some TV show content for Zune 3. But nothing all that impressive.

What was happening behind the scenes over time, however, was far more important: Microsoft's collection of music was growing, and dramatically, and today it at least offers a credible alternative to iTunes from a music standpoint. Too, like Apple, Microsoft converted its music collection, largely, to an unprotected format, in this case the highly-compatible MP3 format. (And of course, Zune Marketplace also offers access to the industry's best music subscription service, Zune Pass.)

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Zune Marketplace.

For the Zune HD, Zune Marketplace receives another evolutionary update. This time around, Microsoft finally offers movies for both rent and purchase, and movies can often be found, optionally, in HD resolutions. (In November, this functionality will be integrated with Microsoft's Xbox 360 so that users will be able to access their purchased or rented video content from the PC or video game console.) There's also a bigger selection of TV shows than before, but it's still a paltry selection compared to what Apple provides from the iTunes Store.

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The new Movie section in Zune Marketplace.

Sadly, the movie experience on Zune Marketplace is lacking, and in major ways. And it's not just the sad little collection of available content. There's usually no way to tell whether a movie is available for rent, purchase, or both until you click into the movie's marketplace page. If you can rent a movie, you have to choose at the time of rental whether you will be watching it on your PC or on your Zune HD. With either choice, you will be given a further choice between HD and standard definition, the latter of which costs a bit less. (Typically 480 MP for HD, or $6, and 320 MP, or $4, for standard definition.) You don't see the price(s), however, until you click the Rent (or Buy) button. Come on, guys.

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Zune makes it hard to rent movies.

There are numerous levels of stupidity there. You don't know whether you can rent, purchase, or both until you click through. And then when you do rent, you have to pick the device, with no chance to change it after the fact. (With iTunes, rented movies can be moved from device to device, and while it's a little ponderous at least it's possible. ) And you don't know the price until you click a button. The whole thing is monotonous.

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Choosing between HD and SD content.

Purchases are somewhat less inane, because they can be copied from PC to device, though Microsoft provides separate HD and standard definition versions of purchased HD movies, and will automatically copy the standard definition version to your Zune HD. Movies prices vary somewhat. A new movie like "Crank 2: High Voltage" (which is terrible, by the way) costs 1600 MP ($19.99) for the HD version and 1200 MP ($14.99) for standard definition. Older films are less. For example, "Bangkok Dangerous" is currently 1600 MP ($19.99) for HD and 800 MP ($10) for standard definition.

There is some good news. Once you've purchased a movie, you can download it again anytime you want from the Zune Marketplace. Try that on iTunes.

Zune Social

Zune Social is the Zune's online community, akin to the Xbox 360's Xbox Live. Unlike Xbox Live, however, Zune Social is totally free, and of course it is focused on sharing music preferences, and thus discovering new music that your friends like. Zune Social utilizes a Zune Card in lieu of Xbox Live's Gamercard, but it works in a similar fashion, alerting your friends to what you're listening to most recently and most frequently. (One can only wonder if music-related Achievements are on the way. The mind boggles.)

Your Zune Card, of course, is the gateway to your online Zune persona, and others can access it on the Zune.net web site, via the Zune PC software, and, if tied to a Zune Pass subscription, via their Zune devices.

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Zune Social lets you advertise your music preferences to friends and, if you'd like, virtually anyone.

This functionality has all been around for a while, but in the current generation of the Zune platform there are a few improvements. For example, you can now send links to songs to your friends, which will then show up in their Zune Inbox. This feature actually replaces one of the Zune's most mocked features, Zune-to-Zune sharing (or "squirting"), which has been discontinued. Microsoft tells me that customers love to share music but rarely were in the same room with their friends and their Zunes.

So no big changes, but the Zune Social serves its purpose by bringing together music lovers and helping them share the songs, albums, and artists they most care about.

Zune Pass

If there is a true differentiator between the Zune and Apple's iTunes ecosystem, it has to be Zune Pass, Microsoft's music subscription service. Zune Pass is awesome and thanks to improvements that the software giant has made over the past year, it's a better value than ever. If you are still actively buying and discovering music--and are thus a music lover--then there is no better solution than the Zune PC software combined with a Zune HD and a Zune Pass subscription.

Zune Pass costs $15 a month, which sounds high at first. (I've always argued that music subscription services need to cost $5 to $10 a month to be broadly successful.) But it's not. What you get for that $15 each month is unlimited access to Microsoft's collection of over 5 million songs, of course. But you also get 10 free song credits each month. When you consider that each song would cost $1 to purchase, the actual cost of Zune Pass is just $5 per month. That is an absolute bargain.

It's even more valuable when you realize the number of places in which you can enjoy subscription content. You can tie your Zune Pass subscription to up to three PC and up to three devices, as before. But you can also now stream music from Zune Marketplace via the Zune.net web site (see below), dramatically increasing the accessibility of the service.

In the Zune 4.0 PC software, Microsoft has also taken steps to call out the song credits you have remaining for the month. (In previous versions, you really had to go and look for it.) The Zune PC software can even recommend songs to purchase based on which subscription songs you've downloaded courtesy of Zune Pass and listened to the most. It's just nicely done.

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Zune Pass now recommends music based on what you've downloaded.

Zune.net

I've never really called out the Zune.net web site as a separate online destination, but that's largely because it was uninteresting as such until the current generation. Today's Zune.net is both deep and wide, and while it offers product information, online support, access to the Zune Social service and Zune Originals online Zune HD customization service, it also does much more. In fact, if you're one of those rare people who would like to access a Zune Pass on your Mac, this could be interesting to you. Or, in the far more likely possibility that you'd like to access Zune Pass at work but can't because of corporate policies that prevent you from installing the Zune PC software, please pay attention to this. Because Zune.net is suddenly quite valuable.

To see what I mean, simply navigate to Zune.net in your browser of choice. Along with a general redesign, the Zune web site now includes top level menu items for Music, Video, and Podcast, and these choices map to the content that Microsoft makes available from the Zune Marketplace. If you're not a Zune Pass subscriber, you can navigate through much of the Zune online store via this web interface and play back 30 second samples, as you might via the PC software. The web site exposes a software player in a thin black band at the bottom of the window, but you can also launch a mini-player in a separate small window. In a nice touch, this display is styled like the Zune PC software's mini player and the Zune HD's Now Playing screen. In other words, it's beautiful.

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Suddenly, the Zune web site is a full-featured music player ... if you have a Zune Pass subscription.

30 second previews are lame, however. To make the Zune.net web site really shine, you need a Zune Pass subscription. And when you logon to this site with said subscription, you now have access to full songs, not just 30 second playlists.

From the Now Playing pane (or pop-up), you can discover related artists, related albums, and top listeners for the currently playing artist. And not just discover them, but play them, in the browser, using a full Mixview experience if that's what you want. That's right, one of the Zune software's best music discovery features is now available from virtually any web browser. (It requires Silverlight 3.)

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Zune.net even supports Mixview.

Anytime access to the entire Zune music catalog is awesome. But there is one thing missing. Any Zune owner has no doubt created any number of playlists in the PC software. And while there's always the possibility (OK, certainty) that those playlists will contain content that wasn't purchased from Zune Marketplace, it would be nice--really, really nice--if you could access your playlists from Zune.net. You have to think that's where this is heading. But it's not there yet.

Podcasts work similarly to music, and it's nice being able to use the Zune.net web site as an online, on-demand radio station of sorts.

The video experience, by necessity, is a bit less dramatic. You can navigate through the Zune Marketplace's somewhat lackluster collection of movies and TV shows, and you can trigger the purchase or rental of video content easily enough from the web browser, though doing so will trigger the Zune PC software, which is where that kind of thing has to happen. So there's no Netflix-style streaming functionality, aside from previews and trailers of course.

(And here's a curious aside. Not all movies and TV shows even support previews. You have got to be kidding me.)

Overall, web-based access to Microsoft's premier online entertainment store is cause for celebration, even if that store is currently a bit under-stocked and offers an inconsistent experience in the video department. It will get better. But for now, it does offer an amazing way for Zune Pass subscribers to get further use and benefit out of what is already a stellar music subscription service. And if you are one of those people that would like to access the Zune music catalog away from your PC--say at work--this is a wonderful solution. Apple offers absolutely nothing like it.

Final thoughts

Overall, the various services Microsoft has built around the Zune platform do increase the value of the Zune HD and the Zune PC software. Some of the services--like Zune Pass and the Zune.net access to the Zune Pass content, as well as Zune Social--are simply unparalleled in the Apple ecosystem and provide very real differentiators. Zune Marketplace, meanwhile, still has a lot of catching up to do, and in this regard, Apple has little to fear. Yes, the music collection on Zune Marketplace is excellent--especially so for Zune Pass subscribers--but the TV show, movie, and podcast collections are lacking, and movie purchasing and renting is particularly poor. I didn't highlight this above, but audiobook access on Zune devices is also pretty weak, since you need to "side load" content from Audible or OverDrive using their software. It's better than nothing, of course, but hardly seamless.

Looking ahead, the expansion of the Zune brand to other Microsoft platforms--starting with Zune video support on the Xbox 360 in less than two months--will only improve the value of these services to the users who buy into this ecosystem. Whether any of this is enough to attract new users remains to be seen. But I like what Microsoft is doing here and will continue using the Zune HD, Zune Marketplace, and Zune Pass going forward. It's the superior solution for music lovers.