In its complete remaking of the Zune platform, Microsoft this week unveiled a new generation of devices along with device-based firmware, PC software, and a new set of online services. In part two of this review, we'll focus on those services, which include a completely rearchitected and redesigned version of Zune Marketplace as well as a completely new service called Zune Social.
As with the software components we looked at in part one, these services are no longer feeble shells on top of pre-existing solutions. Well, not entirely. The new Zune Marketplace is no longer based on the ill-fated MTV URGE online service, but was instead designed in concert with the Zune 2.0 PC software to appear as a coherent whole. Zune Social, meanwhile, is an attempt to capitalize on the community effect that Microsoft has so successfully created via Xbox Live. Indeed, it is quite clearly based on that service, though I'm unsure whether Zune Cards will ever have the cachet of Xbox Gamertags. Hey, you never know.
As one of just four top-level menu items in the Zune PC software (the others are collection, device, and social), Zune Marketplace offers an extremely rich and visual user interface. It's designed to be more friendly and appealing than Apple's iTunes Store, and it certainly is that, which isn't hard given the ugly, busy UI that Apple employs. But Zune Marketplace is also quite a bit smaller than the iTunes Store. There are no TVs or movies to download, for example, and the selection isn't as rich and deep. But as is the case with the Zune PC software itself, sometimes less is more: The Zune Marketplace UI is dramatically more attractive than what Apple supplies, and not as busy.
Of course, discoverability is key. One of the biggest failings of the iTunes Store is that it's not a friendly place to browse around and discover new music. To compare the two, I looked first at the Zune Marketplace's layout, comparing it to the Apple offering. I then examined the pages for some bands I'm familiar with, to see how things were presented and what related music was recommended. The results were interesting.
In the Zune Marketplace, there are three basic sections, which are accessed via a submenu strip near the top of the application window: Music, podcasts, and downloads. Music, as you might expect, is at the center of the Zune experience. This is for practical reasons, as the vast majority of portable media device buyers are interested in music above all else. Here, Zune Marketplace does a reasonable job. There are 16 top-level genres, curiously ordered not in alphabetical order but rather in what is presumably some editorialized list according to user preference: Rock, hip-hop, R&B/soul, pop, electronic/dance, Latin, Reggae/dancehall, world, country, classical, jazz, blues/folk, comedy/spoken word, Christian/gospel, soundtracks, and kids'. Via a "more" choice, you can access an additional five sub-genres: Avant-garde, easy listening, miscellaneous, new age, and seasonal. It's unclear why they couldn't all just fit on the main page, but whatever. There is also a separate two-item "browse" list below genres that includes links for playlists and charts.
Apple, by contrast, pushes music to a secondary page in the iTunes Store, as the front page is devoted to the wide range of content it now sells. On that music page, you'll find 20 genres. Apple collects Rap and Hip-hop into the same category. There's no New Age genre in iTunes, which is odd, as they sell a ton of it.
In the so-called above the fold area, the Zune Marketplace is pushing some featured content, "new and necessary" albums, top songs, top music videos, top albums, and top playlists, the latter of which appear to have been made by editors in the Zune organization. Below that, you'll see "dig deeper" links for emerging artists, older content, and a link about the Marketplace's DRM-free MP3 tracks. Sadly, Zune Marketplace doesn't appear to offer a separate section where you can just browse DRM-free tracks, as do Apple and other services.
On the Apple Store music page, by contrast, there's a lot more going on, and it's all busily arranged in orderly boxes. Along the top, you'll see new music releases, "more in music," which includes a long and busy text list of iTunes-specific features, "Quick Links," which is yet another list of iTunes-specific features, and top songs. Further down is genres, top albums, pre-orders, free downloads, "what's hot," iTunes essentials, staff favorites, top ringtones (for the iPhone), celebrity playlists, hot music videos, vocal favorites, and top music videos. Phew. Finding anything on this page is a disaster due to the sea of text links, many of which are very similar. (Why are there separate "hot music videos" and "top music videos" lists right next to each other?) The iTunes interface is just horribly busy, though it is admittedly full of far more content.
Basically, what we're looking at here are the two ends of the spectrum. The Zune Marketplace is far more attractive than the iTunes Store and far more inviting. If you're willing to spend the time mousing around, however, there's a lot more going on in Apple-land. There's just no way to dig very deeply into the Marketplace. For example, if you click the "playlists" link under "browse," you'll navigate to a Playlists page. One of the few lists here is "top playlists," which includes just five items. But there's no way to go further: Five items is all you get, suggesting that these aren't just the top five, they're the only five. Weird. (That's not actually the case, it's just how it looks.)
Where the Zune Marketplace really shines is its artists pages. The Zune pages are just better looking than anything in iTunes, and they offer more useful information. For example, in addition to cool edge-to-edge graphical designs, you can get (often very detailed) biographical information, along with numerous photographs for top bands, and huge lists of related bands. As an example, R.E.M. was one of the very first bands I compared on both services. On Zune, you can switch between a graphical view of all available music from that band, and a subset of only that content you can actually purchase there. The bio was like a short novel, extending far below the lower edge of the application window and includes almost 30 photographs. Apple offers the same exact bio, but no photo collection.
If you're looking for similar music, Zune is the way to go: There is a list called "influenced by," which lists almost 18 bands that influenced R.E.M. The related artists list is even longer, with roughly 40 entries. And a third list, related genres, provides yet another jumping off point. To see related artists on iTunes, you have to navigate into the page for an R.E.M. album. There, you'll find a short list called "listeners also bought." It's not quite the same thing.
Microsoft was roundly criticized for its utter lack of support for podcasts in the first version of its Zune platform. They've clearly taken this criticism to heart in version two, as podcasting is a first class citizen this time around. Via the podcasts menu, you can access a basic collection of podcasts, but one that falls far short of the selection available at iTunes. In fact, I was disappointed to see that not only is my own podcast not available via the Marketplace (note: This was rectified since I started this review), neither are many of the podcasts (none tech related, go figure) that I subscribe to.
So, for example, while Zune Marketplace does stock Travel with Rick Steves, it doesn't include his other podcasts, including the excellent Rick Steves' Europe Video, Rick Steves' Audio Tours, or Rick Steves' European Christmas. NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook? Nope, though Zune does feature numerous other NPR podcasts. Few Seconds in Paris? Nope. French For Beginners? No, but they do have the inferior The French Pod Class for some reason.
My understanding is that the podcast section on Zune Marketplace will only grow as people make suggestions, and of course you can manually subscribe to any podcast using an RSS-type URL via the Zune PC software as well. That said, it can only get better: In this case, less really is less.
Still. Let's give them credit for calling them podcasts and not something lame like Zunecasts.
About purchasing and subscribing
One other huge advantage of the Zune Marketplace over the iTunes Store is that Microsoft offers an all-you-can-eat subscription service, called Zune Pass, which gives you access to most of the tracks it offers for sale. I say "most" here because DRM-free MP3 tracks are not included, and I'm unclear on why protected versions of all of those songs are not available for this reason. Zune Pass, like all other music subscription services, is overpriced at $14.95 a month.
Hey, at least that cost is calculated in US dollars. Figuring out the cost of individual tracks and albums on Zune Marketplace is as confusing as ever because Microsoft is employing the same micro-payment system that they use on Xbox Live Marketplace. Here's how it works: Basically, you can't buy an individual song on Zune as you can via iTunes. Instead, you must purchase something called Microsoft Points, which come in packages of 400 ($5), 1200 ($15), 2000 ($25), and 4000 ($50) points. Because the points are abstracted from the actual amount you're spending, it's often unclear what the heck is going on. The cost of an individual song is 79 Microsoft Points (MP), or roughly 99 cents. But since you don't purchase MP in 79 point increments, you'll always have extra left over. That's a little gift you're giving Microsoft, I guess, on top of the loan you already gave them when you purchased a MP package. It's a stupid, stupid system.
Albums are worse. REM's latest album is $12.99 on iTunes, but its 1000 MP on Zune. What the frick is 1000 MP? Thanks to various online converters (here's a good one), I can discover that 1000 MP is $12.50. So it's a bit cheaper than at iTunes. But why do I have to do math to make a purchase like this? Math is hard!
With the understanding that no amount of complaining on my part is ever going to change this, Microsoft really needs to rethink the whole MP system. It's horrible, because it hides the true cost of things, makes you put money into Microsoft's pockets up front, and then is built to ensure you'll never be able to spend all of it. This is not consumer friendly. I'm curious that it's even legal as currently implemented.
Problems with the Zune Marketplace
A couple of random issues with Zune Marketplace...
I like that Zune Marketplace features over 1 million DRM-free MP3 tracks. But I'd like it a lot more if I could find them. While other services offering DRM-free music go the extra mile by actually showcasing that content, I can't find a similar section in Zune Marketplace.
From a design perspective, Zune Marketplace is presented like a fixed-width Web page, so its gets stuck over on left edge of the application on high-resolution displays. There's gotta be a more graceful way of doing this, and I'm curious why it's not using the awesome auto-layout functionality in Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), like the New York Times Reader does.
Overall, discoverability in Zune Marketplace is not great. Where are the music videos? Is there a way to just see the videos? I don't see it. And why are all the lists so short? There's a list of top songs that's only five songs deep. There are only five top songs on the Zune Marketplace? Come on, guys. Fill this sucker out.
Given the Zune Marketplace's current limitations--no TV show, movies, or audio book support--what Microsoft has created here is decent. There's a lot of room for improvement, but that's mostly of the filling out variety, it seems. Certainly, the general design is elegant and the selection is very good given the subset of the market that Zune Marketplace is currently tackling.
The second online service, which is implemented as a Web site despite the prominent "social" link in the PC-based Zune software, is called Zune Social. It's the final piece in pulling over all of the Xbox Live service to the Zune, and is essentially an online identity that is tied to a Windows Live ID account, giving others access, in this case, to your musical preferences. At the heart of this is the Zune Card, which is analogous to the Xbox Gamertag. This card, which is currently tied to the Zune.net Web site but will eventually be embeddable in your own sites online, tracks what you're listening to in the Zune software and devices and displays that information for others to see.
To understand how this works, you can check out my own (admittedly lame) Zune Card. It's pretty graphical, with album art displays, and three basic views. The default view, Home, displays the album art for the songs you've most recently played. On the groaningly-named Favs view, you can see those albums and songs that have been played frequently or specifically marked by the user as being favorites. The final view, Plays, shows recently played songs in order.
Clearly, there's the makings of a Facebook-style community happening here, and I could see people rallying around similar music just as they do with video games now on Xbox Live. For me personally, this is a tough sell, as I'm over 40 and don't exactly troll the Internet (or, for that matter, brick and mortar stores) looking for others with similar musical tastes. But as I so often discover these days, I'm not exactly the target market here either.
Implemented as it is only on the Web--you can only access your Zune Card "inbox" from the PC application--this is of limited value right now. What Microsoft should be doing is integrating this stuff directly into the PC client. I should be able to manage "favs" (ugh) from there, and view the entire Web-based experience from that prominent "social" link. And I'd like to be able to embed my Zune Card on my own sites, as I can now do with my Xbox Live Gamertag.
My guess is that this is exactly the type of functionality Microsoft will add over time. Right now, however, it's a little sparse.