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Microsoft Hits A New Note

After five years of dominating the digital music player market, Apple now has competition from that "other" computer company.

Microsoft Zune – the software giant's answer to the Apple iPod – makes its debut Tuesday, a rollout conveniently coinciding with the holiday shoppping season.

Will Zune be the pricey stocking stuffer of the year? Microsoft sure hopes so.

I've had a chance to test the new digital music player and, while it does do everything the iPod does and more, I'm not convinced it will take a bite out of Apple's market share – at least not yet.

Although it comes in three colors – brown, black and white – there is really only one version of Zune, which stores 30 gigabytes of music, photos and video and sells for $249.00. That's the same price as Apple's 30GB iPod, but Apple offers a whole crop of iPods - ranging from the 1GB $79 shuffle to the 80GB $349 model.

When you hold a Zune next to an iPod of the same capacity, the first thing you notice is that Zune is larger, thicker, heavier and – dare I say – a bit more awkward-looking. Zune weighs 5.6 ounces – 17 percent more than Apple's 30GB iPod. At .6 inches in depth, it's 40 percent thicker and a bit taller than the iPod. But weight and dimensions don't tell the whole story. The iPod has a polished, finished look to it; Zune looks and feels, well, just a little bit cheaper.

But looks aren't everything. When it comes to performance, Zune delivers the goods. Its software is quite easy to use, making it a cinch to sync your digital music collection from your PC to Zune. The sound is excellent but photos, videos and album covers look more grainy than they do on the iPod's smaller screen.

Zune has a couple of features you won't find on any iPod. For example, it has a built-in FM tuner that can scan for stations and choose your favorites as pre-sets. Apple offers an FM radio as an accessory, but it's not built into the product.

to hear Larry Magid's podcast interview of Microsoft's Matt Jubelirer on what Zune can and cannot do.
The biggest Zune feature that's lacking in Apple's offerings is what Microsoft calls "the social." That's the ability to share music from one Zune to another, so long as they are in the same room.

All Zune devices have built-in WiFi, which allows them to create an ad hoc network between Zunes. You can select a song and then select "send." Zune looks for nearby devices – it has a range of about 30 feet – and if it finds one, it allows you to send the song. The other Zune user gets a message asking if it's OK to receive the song. At that point, the other person has three days to enjoy the song. It will then self-destruct unless that person purchases it.

Zune is not the first device to offer this feature. The $299 Music Gremlin that was introduced in June, allows you to send songs to nearby Gremlins and use the Internet to link to Music Gremlins anywhere in the world. Microsoft's system is limited to tune-sharing with Zunes in the same room.

Aside from being bigger and heavier and less polished, Zune looks a bit like an iPod in that both have what appears to be a navigation wheel in the middle. But unlike the iPod's touch-sensitive scroll wheel, the round object in the middle of Zune is actually just four switches – up and down to control volume or scroll to make selections and left and right to move forward or backward. Personally, I think there is something to be said for not having a touch sensitive wheel. I often find myself making mistakes with the iPod because the wheel can be overly sensitive. Others I've talked with express similar concerns.

With Zune, Microsoft is emulating Apple by offering the hardware, the software and the service which is unusual for Microsoft which typically relies on partners for hardware and sales.

Zune software is used to store your own music library and to purchase music from Zune's online store. When I first visited the store I thought that songs were 79 cents each but those are "points." Each song purchase results in 79 points being deducted from your account and 79 points will cost you about 99 cents – the same price as on iTunes.

One bad thing about Zune and its music store is that it creates yet another tower-of-babble for digital music. Not only is it incompatible with music purchased at iTunes – as expected – but Zune is also incompatible with music purchased from Napster, Rhapsody and other Widows Media compatible music stores. In other words, Zune is not compatible with Microsoft's heavily touted "PlaysForSure" branding strategy that assured users that their hardware would work with music from their favorite digital music stores.

So, after playing with Zune, I'm convinced that Apple will continue to dominate the digital music scene for the foreseeable future.

However, never sell Microsoft short. The company has deep pockets and a tenacious attitude. It's not unusual for them to enter a market with a so-so product only to come back at it with new products that make up for any deficiencies.

With Microsoft, "three is a charm." Back in the late 80s, it took three tries before Microsoft Word unseated WordPerfect and Windows 3.0 was the first version of Windows that actually worked with some regularity.

Zune 1.0 does work, but it doesn't jump out at me as a superior product. Given time, that could change.

In the meantime, Apple now has even more incentive to innovate and continue to improve the iPod. And that's good news - for consumers.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid