Up Close and Personal With Zune, Microsoft's 'iPod Killer'

What looks like an iPod, acts like an iPod, plays music, videos and photos like an iPod but isn't an iPod? If Microsoft has anything to say about it, the answer is Zune.

The 30-gigabyte Zune, a portable media player created to unseat the reigning king of digital media players, Apple's iPod, arrives in stores Nov. 14.

"It's coming into the market at the cusp of the holiday buying season, and I would expect some aggressive advertising," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for the NPD Group. "But the iPod remains a very strong competitor. It's a smaller device, has a longer battery life, is well-marketed and, arguably, has more media support out of the gate."

Priced at around $250 to compete with Apple's 30 gig iPod, Microsoft will launch a digital download store à la iTunes, where Zune owners can buy songs for about $1 each and albums at prices comparable to iTunes'.

With Apple in firm control of more than 70 percent of the digital media player market, Microsoft has its work cut out for it, even though close to 70 percent of Americans don't even own a player yet. A recent survey by ABI Research showed that 58 percent of existing iPod owners and 59 percent of the people polled who owned other players said they'd consider buying a Zune instead of an iPod or another player -- all good news for Microsoft.

"Micrsoft is a very strong global brand. It's going to help the consideration factor, but ultimately, it's just a factor," said Rubin. "People are going to make choices on features, on form ... and on the quality of the integrated experience."

At a private event in New York City -- hidden from the prying eyes and ears of gadget geeks and audiophiles -- Microsoft rolled out the welcome mat for ABCNEWS.com and other journalists for a hands-on look at the Zune and music download store it hopes will be the next big thing.

'Welcome to the Social'

With images of coolly dressed 20-somethings gleefully playing with their Zunes projected on the stark white walls of a Chelsea loft, the target audience for Zune is obvious. So is the company's urge to make Zune a social movement rather than just a way to listen to music.

The slogan "welcome to the social" appears on Zune Web sites and was prominently displayed throughout the event room, further evidence of the company's intentions.

"Our goal is to change the way we think about and consume digital music," explained Scott Erikson, Zune product manager, to a small group of media professionals.

How? The "big deal" surrounding the device is that owners can beam music and photos from Zune to Zune through a wireless connection -- but they can't send or receive video. Microsoft hopes it'll bring Zune owners together and motivate more customers to pick up the product. If your buddy has a Zune and you want to share music and pictures with her, you'll need a Zune too.

"One of the problems is that there's a high barrier to entry for the peer-to-peer sharing because you have to buy the device to participate," Rubin said. "But who knows? Maybe it'll become a date-screening device: 'You don't like the music I like, so forget it!'"

The device lets users know what other Zunes are in the vicinity and what the owners are doing, though users cam block others from seeing them. It takes less than 20 seconds to send and receive a song, and just a few seconds for a photograph.

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