Microsoft, the world’s leading producer of software and the next major company in line to challenge Apple Computer and its iPod and iTunes Music Store, has remained relatively mum on the development of its Zune iPod rival—releasing little more information than that it plans to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into the device’s development—but that hasn’t kept information on it from leaking to bloggers and websites.
Most recently, both iLounge and Gizmodo claimed to have obtained versions of the Zune device, and they’ve released a new photo—albeit blurry—and reports on its user interface as well as comparisons to Apple’s iPod.
First off, though Zune does feature a circle navigation interface, it is not a touch-sensitive click-wheel like the one featured in an iPod; rather, there are four buttons situated around the circle, according to iLounge. A button to the left of the center circle enables users to access the main menu, two buttons in the circle enable scrolling, and the button to the circle’s right allows users to play and pause selections, iLounge reports. There is also a hold switch on the top of the device, similar to the switch found on Apple’s iPods, according to iLounge.
Microsoft Zune Logo
In contrast to Apple’s display text, the Zune player features dark backgrounds with light text, and the menu itself is set up in a similar fashion to Apple’s top-to-bottom hierarchy, iLounge reports. The device’s wallpaper can also be customized, according to iLounge.
To help users keep track of where they’re at when scrolling through large music or video libraries, Zune displays the first letter of the artist, song or video title the user is currently on at the right side of its screen—a unique feature unlike any within an iPod, Gizmodo reports. The speed of scrolling depends on how long the user holds a finger down on the center buttons, according to Gizmodo, and the user interface overall is similar to that of Windows Media Center 2005.
Another feature unique to Zune is a magnetic clip on its rear side designed to hold earphones, according to Gizmodo.
Apple’s newer iPods can display album art when songs are playing, and Microsoft built similar functionality into Zune; however, iLounge says Zune’s method of displaying art is better because of its slightly larger screen and its placement at the top of the display, stretching across its full width. An information bar sits at the bottom of the screen while content is playing, and a battery-status icon is also featured, according to iLounge.
Zune features a built-in FM radio tuner that can pick up North American, European and Japanese programming, iLounge reports.
Earlier reports on Microsoft’s Zune hinted at Wi-Fi capabilities that would allow users to buy and transfer music wirelessly, and according to both iLounge and Gizmodo, the initial reports were accurate. iLounge noted a feature that will enable users to temporarily share content for a short period of time—perhaps one day—and it said users may eventually be able to transfer music to Xbox 360 game consoles.
A bit bigger than a 30GB iPod, Zune features a slightly larger screen for improved viewing of video content, and it’s made of semi-transparent plastic, according to Gizmodo.
The big question: Regardless of all the hype, can Microsoft’s Zune really give Apple’s uber-popular iPod a run for its money?
According to iLounge, “Microsoft may have gotten a few things closer to right than normal, but neither any individual part of the package nor the complete experience will truly rival the iPod’s super-simple, mainstream experience.”
The real answer remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Microsoft has an uphill—or up-mountain, if you will—battle ahead of it if the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant wants to present any significant competition to Apple.
It’s also clear that Zune’s user interface will be only a small part of the motivating factors to buy a Zune. Apple has built the reputation of being a “cool” company, and its marketing efforts have saturated city streets and suburban walks alike with images of its golden child of the digital media player space. Microsoft will need to ingratiate its digital media offering into popular culture if it hopes to lead the public away from those oh-so-recognizable white earbuds and into its user base.