Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Microsoft takes a bite of Apple's iPod market

It has taken the combined brain power of 230 developers and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Finally, yesterday, America got its hands on Microsoft's answer to the iPod — the much-hyped Zune portable music and video player.

Due to be launched in Britain after Christmas, the Zune is designed to capture a share of the lucrative portable digital music market pioneered by Apple.

But the critics are divided on its merits. And the launch seems to have passed most New Yorkers by.

There weren't any queues at Best Buy in NoHo, Manhattan, when I collected mine as the store opened at 10am. "We've had a few calls," the shop assistant said. "But I don't think that many people know about it."

Some $292.59 (£154) later — the basic price is $249, but then there's tax and something called a "jam jacket" for "scratch and slip protection" — I was a Zuner.

Mine is brown, the only exclusive colour — iPods aren't available in brown — and came in a box that looked like it might contain fancy perfume. "Welcome to the social," it says on the box in the kind of font you'd find on a club flyer. The only indication that it is a Microsoft product is the small print on the bottom.

The Zune is a clunky, 30 gigabyte digital music and video player, about as deep as a deck of cards but larger, with a 2in by 2.5in screen. It feels hefty compared with my iPod Mini but that's because of all its superior whizbangery, I'm told.

Getting started is as simple as the iPod: load the software, plug it in and charge up.

You can upload your own CDs and buy music and video from the Zune Marketplace website, which works a lot like iTunes. Only instead of purchasing individual tracks, you buy blocks of credits that can be exchanged for songs (the cost is the same, 99 cents each). And you can customize the screen as you would a desktop.

Before you begin, you have to give the device a name. This tag is important because it enables your Zune to talk to other Zunes, one of the device's iPod-trumping features — the "social" part we were welcomed to earlier.

Whereas most personal music players encourage you to shut out the world, Microsoft's Zune wants you to reach out to it, albeit without necessarily speaking to anyone.

"We wanted to add the social back into entertainment," is how Matt Jubelirer, a Zune product manager, describes it.

The device has a built-in Wi-Fi feature so Zunes can interact. When you're within 30ft of another Zune, the devices' tags show up on each others' screens in a kind of random digital flirtation.

Overtures can be rejected, but if you don't mind a stranger cannibalising your content, you can beam any song or picture to the other device.

The Zune, which also has a built-in FM radio (the iPod doesn't), has excellent sound quality and a sharp picture. Instead of the iPod's signature scroll reel, it has a round button which is actually four switches you use to navigate the menu, in some respects an easier system than Apple's overly sensitive wheel.

But the content-sharing concept apart, there's no getting away from the fact that the Zune feels like a clumsy copy of the iPod, simply less sexy than Apple's sleek design. It is also not compatible with iTunes and as yet can't be used on a Mac.

The bulky brown unit already has some fans, however. At a launch event near Microsoft's headquarters, John Richards, a local radio DJ, pinged a song to Bill Gates and raved about the Zune's "rich, Seattle feel".

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