Windows 7 : Microsoft Zune - A Digital Media Alternative - Why Zune?

3/4/2013 6:32:13 PM

Over the past decade, Microsoft has found that translating its success in operating systems into other markets isn't always a sure thing. Yes, its Microsoft Office productivity suite is a blockbuster success, and its enterprise-oriented Windows Server products aren't too shabby either, but these products are all obviously related. And Microsoft's Windows, Office, and Windows Server products are, in fact, still responsible for almost all of the company's revenues.

That's the problem. True financial success has eluded most of Microsoft's other products to date, including its digital media products, its Xbox video game business, and its Live and MSN online services. In each case, Microsoft's dominance in operating systems and office productivity software hasn't helped it expand successfully into other markets.

What's surprising about Microsoft's failure in the digital media market is that it actually does bundle its excellent Windows Media Player software with Windows, and it's done so for several years now. Despite this, Apple has taken a dominant position in the market with its iPod and iPhone portable devices, its iTunes PC software and iTunes Store online service, and related products such as the Apple TV set-top box. Apple's success is well-deserved—its products are routinely highly rated and are, in fact, almost universally excellent—but it has caused Microsoft's competing solution, based around Windows Media Player, to first falter and then fail in the market.

That solution, which was once called PlaysForSure, sought to duplicate Microsoft's experiences in the PC market. Microsoft created the software based on its Windows Media platform, consisting of Windows Media Player, Windows Media and Audio formats, Windows Media DRM (Digital Rights Management) for content protection, and much more. However, the company relied on a variety of hardware partners to design, ship, and market a set of competing portable devices and hardware, much like different PC makers make PCs. It also relied on a second set of partners to create online services for music, movies, and other content, all built on Windows Media.

It sounded like a great idea, but it wasn't really a great idea because Microsoft couldn't control the entire process. Even though it might introduce new platform features, it had to wait for the hardware makers and services to implement support, and when Apple came along with a centralized solution, controlled and designed by a single company, consumers took note. Today, PlaysForSure is essentially dead in the sense that you won't see PlaysForSure logos on any products at your local electronics retailer. Sure, numerous portable devices (made by companies such as Creative, Samsung, Sandisk, and others) still work just fine with Windows Media Player and online services such as Amazon Unbox, CinemaNow, and Napster, but the PlaysForSure ship has sailed, people, and the biggest indication that that's true is the fact that Microsoft, the originator of PlaysForSure and its underlying Windows Media platform, has moved on to something else, something called Zune.


To be fair to Windows Media, the platform has a lot of life left in it; Windows Media Player, in particular, is an excellent bit of software. According to Microsoft, it intends to co-develop both Windows Media and Zune going forward, though the PlaysForSure logo program has been discontinued and rolled into the more nebulous Designed for Windows logo program (which, to my knowledge, few device makers and services have embraced with any particular gusto). Microsoft is throwing considerable resources at Zune as well and will improve this platform dramatically in the years ahead. If you're a gambler, this is the obvious pick, at least on the Microsoft side of the fence.

1. Zune 1.0

To the cynical, Microsoft's Zune platform is a fairly transparent copy of the Apple play-book. As with Apple's iTunes platform, Zune is centrally controlled by a single team, in this case from Microsoft. Like Apple's platform, Zune includes PC software for organizing and playing music and other content, accessing an online store, and managing compatible portable devices. Put another way, Zune is a closed platform, as is Apple's. The Zune devices work only with the Zune PC software, and the Zune PC software can't be used to manage any non-Zune devices. The advantages of this kind of solution are tighter integration between hardware and software and, in the case of Zune, a growing set of online services.

It's nice when it works out that way, but whereas Apple has gotten almost everything right with its iPod, iTunes, and related solutions, Microsoft has stumbled a bit as it tries to find its way. Today's Zune is a dramatic improvement over the first iteration, and no doubt future versions will be even better, and the Zune is an evolving platform, so it's improving steadily over time. As such, it has certain advantages over the Apple platform, but also some areas where it falls short.

Microsoft shipped the first Zune version in late 2006. There was a single Zune hardware device, the since-renamed Zune 30, which came in a classic iPod form factor and included a 30GB hard disk for storage. The original Zune hardware was decent if unexceptional, but the first Zune software—shown in Figure 1—was almost comically bad. It was essentially a rebranded version of Windows Media Player 11 with a weird gray skin. Zune's online store, Zune Marketplace, was accessed via this software interface.

Figure 1. The first Zune software was just an ugly skin on top of Windows Media Player.

Was it successful? I guess that depends on how you define successful. Microsoft sold about 1.5 million Zune 1.0 devices in its first year on the market, just a tiny fraction of the number of iPods that Apple sold during the same time period; but Microsoft can and did accurately claim that this level of sales was enough to catapult the Zune to the number two position in the market for hard-drive-equipped MP3 players (behind, yes, the iPod—way behind). Just by entering this market, even with a decidedly lackluster product, Microsoft was able to immediately outsell all of the PlaysForSure and non-Apple competition. That's actually not too shabby.

2. Zune 2

The less that's said about Microsoft's first version of Zune the better. For the second iteration of the Zune platform, Microsoft set its sights considerably higher and the results were much more favorable. With the Zune 2 platform, released in late 2007, there were more devices, new device capabilities (all of which, amazingly, were ported back to the original Zune device), new PC software, a completely redesigned Zune Marketplace, a completely new Zune Social online community service, and even new hardware accessories. The Zune 2 PC software is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Zune 2 included brand-new and innovative PC software.

Zune 2 was a revelation, and Microsoft really turned the Zune around by starting over from scratch. Whereas the first-generation Zune was all about the hardware, the second-generation platform expanded dramatically in all areas. The software was built from scratch and was dramatically better than the first, Windows Media Player–based, version. The hardware was expanded to include thin and light flash-based players, the Zune 4 and 8, and a new 80GB hard drive model, the Zune 80. It was all pretty well conceived.

However, as a new product essentially, Zune 2 had some issues. The initial release lacked the ability to create smart playlists, though Microsoft fixed that with a Zune 2.5 release in mid-2008. Microsoft's online store, Zune Marketplace, had over 1 million DRM-free tracks—that is, music not bound by copy protection schemes—but most of the songs sold there were still stuck in DRM hell.

Yes, as a new, built-from-scratch platform, Zune 2 had some holes, but Microsoft filled them over time. Zune 2.5 also added a number of new features, started a move toward a DRM-free Zune Marketplace, and offered better Zune Social integration.

3. Zune 3

In late 2008, Microsoft offered up its third-generation Zune platform, which was really just an evolution of Zune 2. The devices didn't change from a hardware perspective at all, though the capacities were upped to 8, 16, and 120GB, respectively. The PC software and device firmware was further refined with some nifty new features; and Microsoft expanded on Zune's social networking prowess with updates to the Web portal and Zune Social. Zune 3 was all about finishing the work started with Zune 2, and it developed into an amazing platform for digital music and video. The Zune 3 PC software is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. With Zune 3, Microsoft finally closed the gap with Apple for good and offered some incredible new functionality.

At the time of this writing, Zune 3 is still the current version of the Zune software, but you can expect Microsoft to keep releasing new hardware, devices, and services and to generally improve the Zune platform.


You don't need to buy a Zune device to use the Zune software, Zune Marketplace, or Zune Social. The Zune software is freely available to anyone running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7, as are the online services. That means you can very easily check out Microsoft's alternative digital media platform without first plunking down hundreds of dollars on a portable device.

We'll continue covering future versions of Zune on the Web. For the very latest in Zune coverage, please stay tuned to Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows, which has a dedicated Zune section:

By itself, the Zune PC software is an excellent alternative to Windows Media Player, so we'll look at that first.

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