Stereogum’s Sneak Peek At Zune

Let the games begin. Today at 12 EST (right now), just two days after Apple’s big press show, Microsoft lifts the veil on all things Zune. The Microsofties invited Stereogum (along with all your other favorite MP3 bloggers and old-school media) to Seattle to meet with Zune’s lead marketers and developers, to play with one for a few minutes, and to be among the first to report. How could we resist? We love air travel!

So without further delay, a look at the first sanctioned image of Microsoft’s new baby.

Looks sorta like an iPod, doesn’t it? Well, there are some design differences (longer body, larger, vertically oriented screen, a direction pad in place of the patented click wheel) and some distinct hardware features (wireless!), but here’s the real issue: How curious were you to see the thing? It’s all about the look of the device and what it can do, right?

That’s where Microsoft’s challenge lies. Zune provides a few improvements over iPod but, as much as Microsoft acknowledges the inevitability of a device-based dialogue, its aspirations lay far beyond the unit itself; with Zune, the company wants to redefine the market for purchased music, going from the “closed” system of Apple to an open community — an “army of promoters” ?- changing the way music is discovered (via wireless-device sharing of songs and playlists) and purchased (via Zune’s subscription service).

Before I elaborate on the Zune concept, the marketing strategy and, of course, a detailed report on the device itself, here’s a quick breakdown:


  • 3″ Color Screen (compared to 2.5″ for iPod) with shifting orientation for music (vertical) and picture (horizontal) playback.
  • Wi-Fi Wireless Technology, allowing Zune devices in the same room (distance specs TBA) to beam songs between units (a pillar of their “community” concept), to be used for the lesser of three days or three plays. Zunes can also beam pictures, but there is no Digital Rights Management (DRM) associated with picture files (i.e. yours to keep forever).
  • FM Radio reception
  • Personalization of screen and wallpaper with user-provided images and pictures.
  • Dearth of options. True, it’s the first generation, but having only one model ready for launch, while Apple diversifies to ever-increasing, niche options on every level (from the thumb-sized Shuffle, to the 8 GB Nano Mini [or as we like to say, “Ninny”], to the 80GB for just $350) is not gonna be pretty.
  • Limited use of best feature. Zune brings the advance of community sharing, allowing devices to wirelessly share songs. But this won’t mean much when you’re the only early-adopter in the room.
  • Weight. From my crude assessment, the 30GB Zune was roughly the same weight as my 60GB iPod (while wearing its hard plastic cover!).
  • Loss of iTunes-purchased music. Microsoft has no plans to provide for the conversion of protected/DRM iTunes songs.
  • No compatibility with Macs. Obvs.
“We will not look like iPod, nor smell, nor feel.”

This came from the mouth of Chris Stephenson, the Director of Marketing for the Zune project and the owner of four iPods. I sat armed with the most obvious question to ask of someone entering the portable MP3 player (PMP) market: To compete with iPod, you must have identified some weaknesses in its design and function; what are those weaknesses and how did you exploit them with Zune?

The subsequent lecture preempted my inquiry.

“Our goal is to come into the market to create a brand or product in Stage One that competes on the current terms of digital music,” Chris offered. “That is, to have a great device. But that’s only a small part of the vision. We’re much more about connected entertainment.”

The gamble is huge. Microsoft is attempting to transform the market place, to convince users that their approach of sharing and community is the future. It’s a paradigm shift, at a time when the sexiness of iPod couldn’t be greater.

But the Zune device does offer improvements on the iPod model and, according to Microsoft’s numbers, the available market is surprisingly large. Stephenson cited that there are 50 million iPods in 32 million households (meaning there are many multi-unit homes). 20% of iPod users are deeply invested (with the full ecosystem of products, sizes, etc), but the remaining 80% are at a low level of investment; they use PCs, their iPods were gifts, they own an average of 24 AAC files (iTunes-purchased songs).

“Apple as a brand is very strong with media and artists, but the market is much bigger; it’s hundreds of millions, where now only 32 million homes have them. That’s only a small portion in the game, a tiny portion in the digital download space. While there is growth in digital music, there’s only a small investment so far. There’s a huge market opportunity. 95% of the OS base is still Microsoft, so it’s quite robust.”

Microsoft’s initial goal is modest; to be a strong #2, and slowly grow a Zune community to implement their new vision of music discovery and consumption, and their vision of the PMP less as a “device” and more as a “tuner.”

Chris draws an analogy to Hotmail.

“If you have an account, you’re not thinking that you need a computer for your hotmail account, you’re thinking that you need a tuner to get your mail. Hotmail is about information and use, and my music is about my entertainment, not about iPod and iTunes.”

Fortunately for Microsoft, they have a working, successful model for connected entertainment; Xbox Live pulled off a similar marketplace transformation recently. We’re no gamers (too busy with our MP3s), but here’s the gist of what went down when Xbox came on the scene: Sony’s PlayStation was dominant and the kids were content. Microsoft’s solution was to give ‘em what they didn?t know they were missing: a connected-gaming community, replete with online identities (or “tags”). This community thinking revolutionized gaming and, in time, PlayStation was forced to accommodate this new landscape with similar, competitive services.

Just as the first generation Xboxes were built with the hardware necessary to accommodate future advances and enhancements in service, Zune rolls out with the tech specs and updatable firmware to make it all happen. And the plan for Zune is similar. As soon as users access the Zune Marketplace, Microsoft will give them the opportunity to create tags, or identities, and ultimately be able to view friends’ playlists and libraries in order to suggest and share songs with ease.

Zune’s first generation is launching with one size option (30GB) in three colors (white, black, brown … the first brown MP3 player?), each in a dulled plastic with translucent coating. The color screen measures 3″ diagonally, and shifts orientation depending on whether you’re listening to music (vertical) or looking at pictures and watching videos (horizontal). The device’s weight is well distributed for each orientation, with a subtle, rear concavity to provide a natural finger-pivot point. The front has one four-way direction button (not a click wheel) and two other functional buttons. (The first thing I did when I got my paws on one was to rub the directional pad like it was a click wheel. Silly muscle memory.)

Zune’s menu navigation is based on the standard hierarchical method that iPod utilizes; their tweak is called TWIST. The device strings the previous menu horizontally across the screen top, keeping everything one click closer (to avoid repeatedly pressing “back” or “menu” to get home). For example, once you’ve selected “Playlists” from the home menu, your playlist titles are listed across the top of the screen, while the contents of the highlighted playlist appear in the vertical space below. Having a larger screen ? and having it oriented vertically ? provides more real estate for lists and information, which makes for less scrolling.

The four-way directional button (center-situated circular button below screen) makes moving through menus and songs easy; press up or down to scroll. And if you hold the button down to speed through your song library, Zune displays a large image of the current letter for ease and speed of identification. And the UI has a cosmetic sheen that iPod has yet to approximate; screens fade in and out as you transition between menu levels. Quite smooth.

Walking through the Zune device will be a breeze to anyone who’s had some experience with an iPod. I played a song (which sounded great, but it was “Saególpur” by Sigur Rós, and that shit would sound live on an 8-track), “flagged” it (as distinct from rating it on a five-star scale, which Zune also offers), looked through photos (which oriented themselves horizontally as I opened them), set one as my personal background, and adjusted the song’s volume — all without needing any hand holding.

Easily Zune’s most distinguishing feature, each unit comes with Wi-Fi wireless sending and receiving capability. Gotta admit, this is pretty hot. With wireless, users can beam songs (or full playlists), album art and pictures to any Zune in the same room (specs TBA). The DRM associated with each music file (regardless of how initially obtained) allows the receiving Zune to enjoy the track for the lesser of three days or three plays. Pictures and album art have no digital rights management associated with them.

Microsoft is hoping to create (and corporately co-opt) the burgeoning network of music sharers and promoters the blogosphere represents; Zune’s wireless capability is the first step.

“We think of Zune as a link to the world, where Apple sees it as closed,” says Chris. “With all due respect, Apple is a very controlled brand. They don’t really have any direct interaction with the consumer or artists. We’re into Web 2.0. The YouTubes, the MySpaces, the user generated content, the creators. We want to facilitate that.”

They’re hoping you’ll grab a track from a friend, enjoy it, flag it (another simple-but-useful function), and buy it from Zune Marketplace when you next synch up. And all of this leads to their hope that you’ll jump on board with their subscription plan.

“Over time, people will learn to love subscription,” Stephenson said confidently. “People haven’t got it just yet, ’cause the brands haven’t been able to build their brand strong enough. Subscription is a dirty word to some people. Think of it as flat rate programming. Like TiVO,” he said, pausing for effect. “People don’t mind that ’cause they think they’re getting value. Flat rate plans allow people to discover new music at no additional cost.”

That is, no cost in addition to the flat fee you pay per-month to have unlimited access to Zune Marketplace-affiliated labels’ rosters.

“KCRW and KEXP are good ’cause they surprise me with their programming,” he said. “Wireless sharing and subscription plans is just bringing that to life. It’s the community aspect.”

The Zune Marketplace (i.e. the store and software) is similar to iTunes, with the primary differences being cosmetic (color scheme), organization (three primary information columns, as opposed to iTunes’ two), and the Journal feature, designed to manage and track your Zune device’s wireless activity. From the Journal page, users will have a list of the songs that have beamed or flagged, allowing for download from the Marketplace within the same screen. Assuming you’re one that buys music, naturally.

And the Microsofties are self-aware; having seen (and acknowledged the hilarity of) the YouTube spoof of Microsoft’s packaging of iPod, Zune comes in a simple and elegant box; still not as sexy as iPod, but a far cry from that video’s hyperbole. Maybe they’re learning.

Moving forward, Microsoft is intent is to portray itself as a music-first company. Richard Winn, the Director of Artist Development for Zune, sketched out the vision.

“There are a core group of major artists that sell a lot of music. We want to be in that, great opportunities with major labels and retailers, all very important. The other part is to be what we are ? a real and authentic, connected music company ? we need to be involved with up and coming artists, that mean something to people like Stereogum readers.”

Microsoft will cater to top-selling artists, of course, but they also want to be involved with emerging indie talent — and do so without compromising their integrity. This means collaborating with artists like CSS or Band of Horses (and non-Sub Pop bands, too) and doing everything from providing exposure via track preloads in Zune, to promoting the artist on Zune Marketplace or Xbox, to providing road managerial and IT services (managing MySpace pages, answering fan mail, etc). In exchange, Microsoft hopes to get exclusive content (like concert audio and pictures) and, ultimately, to take some “cool” from Apple.

“You gotta come up with a thin and gorgeous 100GB Zune, ’cause that’s what we music geeks want,” I told Stephenson as we were wrapping up.

“That’s what I want too, baby,” he smiled. “You should sit in our product development meetings. That’s what we all want.”

We shared a laugh, but this jocular exchange highlighted Microsoft’s main issue: for now, developers and consumers alike are united in their desire for the coolest gadget. Community is a great concept, but people gotta have the device in order to enable a community of users. That begins with making a dent in Apple’s device dominance. And that’s a tall order.

Apple is a runaway success; even those around Zune HQ acknowledge iPod’s emergence as a watershed moment in PMPs, as Pong was to video gaming. What Microsoft hopes is that, as with Pong, that advance was only the beginning. The challenges for both brands are clearly drawn: Apple must retain the rogue spirit, fighting like the underdog it was when it launched its foray into the PMP market and continue to innovate, while Microsoft has to convince users that the game has changed, and theirs is the only device that can play it.

Microsoft has introduced features to which Apple must, and will, respond. Wirelessly transferring tracks ? be it device to device, device to computer, or device to music store ? is a logical evolutionary step. Making personal pictures into wallpaper? Sure, why not, that too. But realistically, Zune has a few-months window within which to advance the possibilities their new technology offers; with aggressive marketing and smart management, there is hope for Zune to grow into the profitable, user-friendly community Microsoft envisions. But, as it stands, Apple has the image, the loyalty, and the market share.

Zune is long on ideas, but may be short on time.

Again, I wasn’t the only MP3 blogger out there to play. Check Coolfer, My Old Kentucky Blog, Scenestars, Music For Robots, 3Hive, and Tiny Mix Tapes for more perspectives and coverage.

What do you guys think? Is the 3″ color screen, the radio, and the wireless capability enough to get you to give up your iPods? Do you think the Connected Entertainment Model will work? Will time run out? Does it blow your mind to think of Microsoft as an underdog?

Scott and I are soon departing to Austin for ACL (they still let you bring MP3 players on planes, right?) but, if you have any questions, feel free to fire ‘em off in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer them (or get the info for you).

UPDATE: Zune in action: