Microsoft Zune: iPod Rival or Just Another MP3 Player?

Microsoft, the world’s leading producer of software, on Tuesday is expected to release its much-anticipated Zune digital media player in the United States, but despite the Internet hype surrounding the device, it still remains to be seen whether the software giant’s offering will prove to be a legitimate iPod challenger or just another failed attempt to steal away some of Apple Computer’s market share.

Microsoft Zune
Microsoft Zune

It’s more than clear that Microsoft has a tough time ahead of it if it hopes to take a bite out of Apple, which currently owns the digital music player and download space in the United States. So far, the Redmond, Wash.-based firm isn’t attempting to challenge Apple by offering a comparable product at a lower price; rather, it’s banking on Zune’s “connected entertainment” features that aren’t available via iPods to build its user base, according to The New York Times website.

On the outside, Zune doesn’t stand out among the iPod and the many other comparable MP3 players on the market today. It has a display that’s a bit larger than most digital music players, and it’s available in an uncommon brown casing—as well as white and black—but there’s not much more that visually sets it apart from the other offerings already available from such firms as Apple, Creative and SanDisk. Its circular navigation button even resembles the iPod’s famous click-wheel, though its actual functionality differs from the iPod staple.

The 30GB Zune is priced similarly to Apple’s 30GB video iPod—both sell for $250—and Microsoft plans to sell songs via its Zune marketplace for $1 apiece—the same price Apple charges for songs via its iTunes Store.

So what is the software giant offering in hopes of compelling loyal iPod users to lay down their earbuds?

First off, Zune comes with a built-in FM radio tuner, which enables users to receive some radio stations on the device without purchasing any add-on mechanisms. Apple users can purchase such add-ons to enable their iPods to receive FM radio, but none of Apple’s iPods comes with such functionality built in.

Second is Zune’s wireless content-sharing ability, which is currently unavailable via any iPod on the market. The Zune will be able to locate any other Zune device within its range to wirelessly share music and photos—and possibly video in the future, according to the Times. Zune users will need to name their devices, so other users can identify Zunes within their range, Scott Erickson, Microsoft’s senior director of product management, told the Times. They’ll be able to send single songs, complete albums—including album art and related information—as well as playlists to other Zune devices, and all users will have the option of accepting or blocking any wireless transfers.

Microsoft Zune Logo

Sounds interesting, right? The only drawback: Songs transferred from Zune to Zune will expire after three plays over three days’ time, and they’ll disappear, according to the Times. Photos sent from Zune to Zune, however, will have no expiration date, the Times reports. This drawback alone has caused a number of pundits and tech websites to trash the device—Forbes.com on Thursday published a piece titled "Zune Stinks"—though few news outlets seem to have actually gotten their hands on a Zune. 

Typically, MP3 player users have been drawn to players with the largest storage capacity, and those with the easiest-to-use manager software. Though the added functionality makes Zune a bit heftier than a comparable iPod—and makes it consume more power—Microsoft’s banking on the device’s Wi-Fi capabilities to set it apart from the iPod and other MP3 players on the market.

“We’re adding that aspect of people sharing music,” Chris Stephenson, general manager for global marketing of Microsoft’s entertainment business, told the Times. “We’re adding to the digital music model what was fundamental to music. People love to share music.”

One additional interesting fact from the NYTimes.com article: The Zune will not function with Mac computers upon its release. When Apple first introduced the iPod, its associated software worked only with Macs, but it shortly after tailored the program to PCs.

In related news, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs in October downplayed Microsoft’s entry into the digital media player and download space, saying he’s not worried about the challenge it will present.

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