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Zune: a fine music subscription device

Last month I received a Microsoft Zune 80 as a gift. (Thanks, Johnny!) Having used the device for several weeks now, I wrote up some opinions of that experience to send to a friend on the Zune team, and have decided to share those thoughts here as well.

My experience with Zune actually goes back a few months, to when I first subscribed to the Zune music service without actually owning a Zune device. I’m partial to having a music subscription rather than "owning" tracks. This is due to personal past experiences wrestling with DRM, and the sense of freedom I find in paying a flat fee for unlimited music. For $15/month I can listen to whatever I want within the reasonably spacious Zune Marketplace. In practice I could use the same amount to buy a big pile of audio tracks from iTunes, but for me a subscription enables a freer sense of experimentation. Case in point: a relative who visited over the holidays wanted to share music by an obscure Chilean musician. It felt great to listen to several esoteric albums through the subscription, and there’s simply no way I would have felt good forking over money on the spot to listen to something I might never listen to again.

Nevertheless, owning a Zune in an iPod world feels akin to belonging to an oppressed religious minority. Discussions about the Zune with fellow Zune owners must be conducted in secret, lest the conversation be overheard by the dogmatic iPod-wielding masses. This is too bad, since I found the second-generation Zune client software and the Zune device itself to work quite well in practice.

The Zune client on Windows generally looks attractive. The client UI is designed carefully enough to reward a close look:

I’m no hardware guru, but the Zune device itself seems well designed.

The software on the Zune device also looks and feel pretty good.

In putting the device through its paces, I ran into more than a few issues:

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my Zune 80. As a music player for an online music subscription service, the Zune works nearly flawlessly. It’s less effective as a podcast or video player, but I’m looking forward to seeing those deficiencies addressed.

I’m not sure what Microsoft can do about Zune’s biggest handicap: its brand. People like buying Apple products because of what they feel the purchase says about them. At this point, buying a Zune either tells people that you’re a Microsoft-loving sap, or else so uninformed as to be unaware that you’ve just purchased a second-place music player. Virtually all of this bad vibe is attributable to the unshakable feeling that Microsoft is trying too hard to be cool. I actually think Microsoft has made some bold and innovative moves in designing and marketing the Zune, but all that works has to fight against the grain of the intrinsically uncool brand of Microsoft itself. And for what? I can’t think of a single way in which the Microsoft brand has helped the Zune in any way, and one can only wonder how much more successful the Zune would be if it had been marketed as a completely independent entity. To their credit, the Zune folks at Microsoft are painfully aware of this enormous marketing handicap, and I wish them the best of luck overcoming it.

In the meantime, I’ll be happily listening to all the music I can eat on my Zune.