Zune MP3 Has Lots of Catching Up to Do

SAN FRANCISCO ~ Microsoft’s sturdy Zune foot soldiers marched out this week in an improbable mission to topple Apple’s world-champion iPod MP3 player.

Zunes echoing iPod’s design but steeped in Microsoft functionality instead of Apple panache debuted in stores on Tuesday.

“Zune is either going to take off like a rocket or it’s not going to go anyplace,” said analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group in Silicon Valley.

“There’s no middle ground. It’s different enough that it could surprise Apple.”

Each Zune has a 30-gigabyte media player and is priced at US$250, on par with an iPod with an equal amount of memory space.

Music for the devices is sold on the internet at Zune Marketplace in a manner similar to the exclusive mating of iPod and Apple’s online iTunes shop.

Zune players feature wireless technology, built-in FM tuners and three-inch screens.

Microsoft is trying to set Zune apart from other MP3 players by promoting the ability of the devices to connect wirelessly with each other so users could share music or play “DJ.”

“They’ve got a single product with a single differentiating feature – sharing,” said analyst Michael McGuire of Gartner Research.

“I think it’s going to be more of an interesting social experiment at first rather than anything else.”

A drawback is that shared songs are erased from borrowers’ Zunes after three days or being played three times, even if only snippets of tunes are listened to.

Borrowers of songs aren’t able to instantly buy sampled music with mobile links to the internet.

“My ability to purchase songs on the spot becomes very powerful,” McGuire said. “That’s where this has to go. We are half way to super-distribution.”

While iPods are “sleek and svelte,” Zunes have rubbery shock-resistant casings and oversized screens tailored for video viewing even though only music will be available.

“Apple has a Porsche design reference” Enderle said. “It appears Zune used a Scion for a reference – oddly utilitarian.”

Zunes come in black, white or brown as compared to the array of bright iPod colors.

“It has a product that’s nice-looking but doesn’t break any ground style-wise,” McGuire said of Microsoft. “It’s kind of odd. I would have expected them to leapfrog Apple.”

Microsoft has aggressively courted musicians and recording studios, going so far as to promise Universal Music Group a portion of Zune player sales revenues.

Apple has focused on consumers in a strategy that made iPods a “cultural fetish” and the most popular MP3 player on the planet, according to analysts.

Filed under:

Comments are closed.