Why Microsoft's Zune scares Apple to the core

Microsoft plans to launch a competitor to Apple Computer's iPod, a wireless media player called the Zune, just in time for the holidays.

Apple fans point and laugh at Microsoft's entry into a market totally dominated by the iPod and its transcendent design. Apple's media players are so good they have transformed consumer electronics, inspired a massive gadget "ecosystem" and spawned a thousand imitators. Every pretender to the media player throne -- and there have been hundreds -- has been thoroughly smacked down by Apple and its untouchable iPod.

The secrets of iPod's success appear obvious: beauty, simplicity and "extreme coolness" -- three characteristics Microsoft has never achieved in any product.

So why is Apple so scared? (I'll tell you why in a minute.)

Zune

First, what is this Zune thing, anyway?

Zune is a music and video player that Microsoft will launch in the U.S. on Nov. 14 for US$249.99. Other countries will have to wait until next year. It's made in China by Toshiba.

The initial version will sport a 30GB hard drive, peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connectivity, a 3-in. screen (320-by-240-pixel QVGA viewable in either portrait or landscape mode), an FM tuner that will display song information from stations that broadcast a Radio Broadcast Data Standards (RBDS) signal and a built-in nonreplaceable lithium-ion rechargeable battery that will probably deliver about 12 hours of music or about 3.5 hours of video on a single charge. It won't last as long as the iPod, but it will charge faster.

Zune will connect to an iTunes-like music store called the Zune Marketplace, which will offer millions of songs, according to Microsoft. Music will be available for 99 cents per song or via an "all-you-can-eat," US$14.99-per-month subscription package called a "Zune Pass." Movies and TV shows will become available on the site sometime next year. Marketplace will work with the Microsoft Points program -- Xbox users can spend Points on Zune media and vice versa. Each song on Marketplace costs 79 points. (For instance, 100 points equals US$1.25).

Zune will come preloaded with yet-undisclosed songs from DTS, EMI Music's Astralwerks Records and Virgin Records, Ninja Tune, Playlouderecordings, Quango Music Group, Sub Pop Records and V2/Artemis Records.

Best of all, Zunes will be able to connect to one another wirelessly, letting people share songs (as well as playlists and .jpg photos) with up to four other simultaneous Zune users within Wi-Fi range. Recipients of these shared songs will be able to play them three times for up to three days free, after which they'll have to pay to listen. Songs received wirelessly can't be shared.

At least in the initial release, Zune's Wi-Fi won't connect to a network. It's peer-to-peer only.

The Zune PC connection software requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Windows Vista, so Macintosh owners can't use it. The Zune will also connect to TVs, home stereos and Microsoft Xbox game consoles and play music or videos through them.

Zune software will import audio files in unprotected WMA, MP3, AAC formats; JPEG photos; and videos in WMV, MPEG-4, H.264 formats. Microsoft has hinted that it will support other media formats, but hasn't specified which ones. Zune will import songs from Apple's iTunes "as permitted by the online service from which it was purchased," according to Microsoft.

Users will be able to choose a "ZuneTag," which is a unique user name that others will see on a kind of "buddy list" when they connect via Wi-Fi. The device will have a "Community" menu from which users can select an item called "Nearby" to display all Zunes within range.

Microsoft will sell three Zune bundles: a US$79.99 Zune Car Pack will ship with a car charger, a US$99.99 Zune Home A/V Pack will come with cabling and wireless accessories for connecting to televisions and stereo systems, and a US$99.99 Zune Travel Pack will feature high-quality earphones, a remote, a carrying case, and a cable for PC synchronization. The company will also sell separate output cables, chargers, docks, upgrade headphones and other accessories.

Compared with Apple's latest iPod, the Zune is a slightly larger, slightly heavier, slightly less elegant device.

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Mike Elgan

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