In late 2006, Microsoft released its first generation Zune, a digital media platform comprised of a portable digital media player, Windows-based software, and an online service. I savaged the first Zune in my review and canceled plans for a Zune activity center here on the SuperSite because, frankly, the product was so laughably bad. Microsoft spent the following year promising and then not delivering on necessary improvements to the Zune. But at least the company had a reason for this inactivity: It was prepping a revolutionary Zune 2.0 release comprised of new players, new software, new online services, and new capabilities all around.
Those products shipped in late 2007 to much acclaim, including my own multi-part review in which I focused on the software, services, and devices in separate articles. Compared to its predecessor, Zune 2.0 was like a breath of fresh air, and proof that Microsoft could still innovate with cool new features that are conspicuously missing even from products made by market leader Apple. I was excited about the Zune and felt like Microsoft finally had the makings of a true iPod/iTunes competitor on its hands.
That's still true. But now that the 2007 holiday season has come to a close, we can and should consider the new Zune products again in the cold harsh light of "the morning after," which, in this case, is early January 2008. As I write these words, Microsoft is gearing up for another Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which, despite being the largest tradeshow in North America by far, is still widely seen in the tech industry as a sad and uninteresting prelude to Apple's smaller but increasingly more influential Macworld show. Will Microsoft make new Zune announcements at CES? I have no idea. But if Microsoft is serious about saving the Zune--and make no mistake, it's on the ropes--the company will need to fix problems a lot more quickly this year than it did last year. That shouldn't be hard.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that I've almost completely given up on the Zune. It just requires too much work for me to bother, and I'm unclear why most people would choose such a device over a comparable iPod. While I did demonstrate how the Zune 4/8 and Zune 80 compare to similar Apple devices, often quite favorably, iPods are more mature and have a much deeper supporting ecosystem. And I have to be honest here: I'm not positive Microsoft can really do much to bring down Apple at this point. Their product line is just too strong.
Microsoft has said it's in this market for the long term. If that's true, they have some work to do. Here are my suggestions.
The Zune has no native support for audio books, TV shows, movies, or games, content that iPod owners regularly enjoy, and Microsoft offers no way to purchase this content from Zune Marketplace. Microsoft could fix this problem right now by making the Zune compatible with what used to be called PlaysForSure: That way, Zune owners could enjoy TV show and movie content from services such as Amazon Unbox, Movielink, and CinemaNow. This is such a no-brainer, it's hard to even understand what the issue is. Right now, this is the single biggest hole in the Zune strategy.
Insert your favorite missing Windows Media Player (WMP) 11 feature here: While I applaud the Zune team for creating gorgeous new PC software, it's too bare bones and seems to be missing at least one crucial feature for every Zune user. I highlight some of my own missing features below, but from a high level perspective, Zune 2.0 is a functional subset of WMP11. That may always be the case, I guess, but it needs to do more.
In my opinion, this is the most annoying missing feature in Zune 2.0, and one that makes the whole Zune experience vastly inferior to that of iTunes/iPod and WMP. How could Zune 2.0 not include smart playlists? The original player had it, for crying out loud.
Another annoying missing feature concerns importing playlists from other players, including iTunes and WMP. The original Zune software could do this automatically, but Zune 2.0 doesn't do it automatically or manually. This is a huge impediment to anyone hoping to "upgrade" to Zune from another digital media platform. It's not an upgrade if it doesn't do more than your previous solution, guys.
While iTunes and WMP support five star ratings (where you can rate songs from 0 to 5 stars), Zune 2.0 only supports two ratings styles: Heart (songs you like) and Broken Heart (songs you don't like). (There's also Unrated for songs you have not yet rated.) Um, right. So under the Zune system, there's no difference between my favorite songs of all time and songs I tolerate. Not that it matters, I guess: With no smart playlists, having any kind of ratings system is just a waste of time anyway.
Fun fact: While Zune 2.0 cannot import playlists from iTunes/WMP, it does annoyingly import ratings, converting them to its silly two tier system.
The new Zune 2.0 software is beautiful and attractive, but it's also shockingly uncustomizable. You can't resize the album art thumbnails, something that will be particularly problematic for users of today's high-resolution, widescreen displays. And I hope you always want to view things the way Zune requires: Artists are always listed as text (no WMP-style stacks, sorry), and albums are always displayed as fixed-sized thumbnails (no stacks or text lists). Videos are always displayed as thumbnails, but you can't change the thumbnail or substitute a movie poster, as you can in iTunes. Pictures? Even worse: Pictures are always thumbnails, but folders are annoyingly displayed as picture thumbnails with a number on top of them. Makes sense.
And don't get me started on keyboard shortcuts. While every non-Microsoft media player application on earth uses simple keyboard controls (Spacebar toggles Play/Pause, for example), Zune uses the non-standard WMP11 keyboard controls (where Play/Pause is CTRL+P). And no, you can't customize that either.
The way Zune 2.0 synchronizes content between the player and a device is completely broken: You drag and drop items from the player onto a player icon in order to copy them to the device. But how do you remove this synchronization or set up sync schedules for subscription content like podcasts? (That's a rhetorical question; please don't try to explain this to me.) Both iTunes and WMP have far more logical mechanisms for setting up sync between software and device.
Today's Zune Marketplace is a halfway house between the silliness of the past (DRM-encoded WMA tracks) and the music utopia of the future (DRM-free MP3 tracks). Microsoft, come on: Just go MP3 across the board. The current system is ridiculous. And as it is right now, if you're a discerning consumer looking only for DRM-free MP3 tracks on Zune Marketplace, good luck: Microsoft does nothing to make it easy. (Services like Amazon MP3 and iTunes Store make it much easier to find non-DRM music.)
That said, Microsoft will still need to offer DRM music to support its Zune Pass subscription service. But all tracks should be available in both formats: DRM-free for purchases and DRM-encoded for subscribers. Until this happens, Zune Marketplace is a mess. And an also-ran.
And speaking of Zune Pass, at $14.95 it's far too expensive. It should start at $9.99 a month and go down from there for customers who pay for lengthy subscriptions in advance. These kinds of services aren't going to take off until they make good economic sense.
Right now, Zune 4/8 devices cost the same as comparable iPod nanos, and the Zune 80 is priced identically to the 80 GB iPod classic. Given the many disadvantages of adopting the Zune platform right now, this pricing doesn't make sense: Microsoft should price the Zune players
10 to 20 percent less than comparable iPods, and it should do this even if it has to lose money on each unit sold. Zune is already a loss-leader for the software giant. Why not go for broke?
I'm intrigued with Zune Social, Microsoft's Zune-oriented version of the Xbox Gamertag, a Web site where users can see which songs, artists, and albums you're listening to. There's just one problem: Zune Social is completely broken and has been ever since it launched in November. The site is dog slow more often than not and completely unreachable at other times. As problematic, the information it displays is completely inaccurate and changes regularly. In my cases, my band "listens" have actually gone down over time in some cases, which I find somewhat irritating. If this thing was an accurate display of what I'm listening to, it would be pretty valuable. But it's not, and it can't even display information for songs, artists, or albums that aren't sold on Zune Marketplace. So right now, it?s a subset of a subset of the music I'm listening to, and one that changes--incorrectly--over time. You know, when you can even access the site. Nice job.
On the hardware side, Microsoft's new devices are comparable to existing iPods, but the company still has no answer for the iPhone or iPod touch. And I'm not talking about the touch screen at all: Microsoft needs a bigger video-oriented player as well as a true phone in order to more effectively compete with Apple. Whether the latter happens through Zune software for Windows Mobile devices or a dedicated consumer-oriented Zune phone is unimportant. It just needs to happen now.
The iPod ecosystem is so vast that the sheer number of hardware add-ons in the Apple camp makes that solution so much more valuable than that of competitors like the Zune. While there's no way to assure that every iPod accessory will work with the Zune, Microsoft should adopt the iPod dock adapter or at least make a converter so that Zune users can take advantage of many iPod accessories.
OK, reality check time: This may not even be technically or legally feasible, I know. But the Zune's proprietary dock adapter is more a liability than a benefit. That it looks almost exactly like the iPod connector is sure to confuse consumers.
The new Zune devices lack any EQ support. Yeah, I get that they have high quality audio chips. Big deal. Add EQ support and win fans. It's simple.
While the iPod nano supports video out, the flash-based Zune 4 and 8 do not. (Video out is available only on the hard drive-based Zune 30 and 80.) That's a pointless and penny-pinching limitation.
The 320 x 240 screen on the Zune 4/8 is acceptable given the size of the device, but this resolution is inadequate for the Zune 80's much larger screen. It also suffers from a blocky "matrixing" effect on the Zune 80, where you can sometimes see black lines between the actual pixels that make up the display. Meanwhile, the iPhone and iPod touch sport a higher resolution 480 x 320 screen. This should be the baseline, but an even higher resolution screen would be preferable. I recommend QHD (Quarter HD), which is 640 x 360, perfect for H.264 video content. A larger video-oriented device should have an even higher resolution screen.
While the iPod is apparently available even in countries without electricity, Microsoft has elected to sell the Zune only in the US and Canada. At CES this week, they've pledged to change that in 2008, but have offered few details. Don't cherry pick the countries that Zune is sold in, Microsoft: It's time to get these devices out to the widest possible audience.
Will implementing these suggestions be enough to save the Zune? You know, I'm not honestly sure. I basically switched to the Zune for two months straight but found myself missing more and more features that I just took for granted on the iPod/iTunes side. Yes, Apple's platform has its own issues, believe me--performance being perhaps the most obvious--but at least on the Apple side the pros outweigh the cons. Right now, that's not the case with the Zune.
When it comes to digital media consumption, nothing is written in stone. My music library is largely comprised of DRM-free MP3 tracks. My photo collection consists solely of standard JPEG files. Movies are, sadly, the most complex: I've got a weird mishmash of H.264, WMV, and AVI/DivX/Xvid files, and for now at least, no single device or software solution plays them all. Things can and will change in the future. But unless Microsoft is serious about improving Zune dramatically--and quickly--through 2008, this game is already over. Many consumers--myself included--will simply continue looking elsewhere.