You might have seen the trying-hard-to-be-hip advertising by now: Microsoft is beginning the marketing death march for its Zune portable digital music player, hoping to convince consumers that there's a viable alternative to Apple's dominant iPod. If the early reviews are to be believed, however, Microsoft first-generation Zune isn't all that exciting. It looks like it's going to be a tough holiday season for the iPod challenger.
Microsoft will begin shipping Zune players to customers tomorrow--Tuesday, November 14, 2006--almost a year after the company's high-profile consumer launch of the Xbox 360. That timing isn't a coincidence: The Zune was developed largely by a team created from the same group that made the Xbox 360, and according to reports, that team has spent all its time since last year working on this new initiative.
Code-named Argo--after the mythological ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts--the Zune is really just a reconfigured Toshiba MP3 player bolstered by a new UI and PC-based client software, both of which Microsoft designed. The company had looked into using its Windows Media Player (WMP) software as the Zune's consumer front end but decided to provide a simpler, Apple-like experience.
This decision, however, came at a cost. In addition to being incompatible with the billions of songs sold through Apple's iTunes Store, the Zune is also incompatible with the songs sold by all of Microsoft's PlaysForSure partners, including MTV URGE, Napster, and Yahoo! Music. It's also incompatible with RealNetworks' Rhapsody service.
What Zune offers in exchange for these incompatibilities is a single unique major feature that even Apple doesn't offer yet: Wi-Fi connectivity. In very limited circumstances, Zune users can share music and photos with one another wirelessly--assuming, of course, that they can even find another Zune user.
If the early reviews are any indication, Apple has little to fear from the first-generation Zune, although Microsoft has pledged to follow it up with more designs in the year ahead. The initial device is heavier and thicker than the iPod, and has worse battery life, even when the Wi-Fi features are turned off. The device is also incompatible with virtually all available iPod accessories and appears to have no compelling reason for existing other than to satisfy the vanity and hubris of certain Microsoft executives.
That said, I'll eventually review the Zune on the SuperSite for Windows, but not until my epic Windows Vista review is complete. I'll also publish hands-on photos and other Zune information in the days ahead.