Why You Probably Should NOT Buy a Zune

If you’re finding this on Google or another search engine and you’re considering a Zune, it’s really important that you read this. There is information that I believe definitely proves that a Zune is a dangerous investment. I’m going to explain to you why investing in a Zune may be a huge, and ultimately very costly, mistake.

If you’ve read my blog over any period of time (and I’m relatively certain that no one has), you’ve probably noticed my not so subtle conversion from Windows to Linux back to Windows and then firmly to a Mac. We are all Mac at my house now, and I don’t try to cover that up. At work, where I choose everything from a technology standpoint, we are Windows 2003 and Microsoft SQL Server, so I’m not especially anti-Microsoft. Anyway, fair disclosure.

Read on for the details.

It all started with this Zune review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Reviewer Andy Ihnatko concludes – well – here’s a quote: “The Zune will be dead and gone within six months. Good riddance.” There are plenty of choice quotes peppered through the article, but all essentially come to the same conclusion – that the Zune is aimed at pleasing the big record companies and not the user. Ultimately, the user interface is not intuitive; the setup is painful, with reports trickling in from around the internet of failed Zune software installs; the wireless capabilities are intentionally crippled; and the device is cheaply built, with the “scroll wheel” – which is lifted directly from the iPod – not actually being a scroll wheel, but rather, a wheel-shaped piece of plastic over four buttons shaped like a plus sign.

And while they all may be valid, the reason you simply cannot buy a Zune can be boiled down to three little words: Plays for Sure.

Why is the iPod successful? More on this in a second, but it ultimately boils down to the fact that Apple was able to integrate digital rights management – or DRM – without hindering the user experience. Most iPod/iTunes users haven’t even noticed that their music is locked down like this.

As a direct response, Microsoft began their Plays for Sure campaign. They based their content restriction on their flagship Windows Media Audio, or “WMA” format. As a result, you can have restricted or unrestricted WMA files. But be aware: WMA files only play on Windows unless you have either (for Macs) third party software or (for Linux) an illegal crack. These files are NOT cross platform. To make things even easier, your Windows Media files are all managed through the already integrated Windows Media Player which – if you’re not in the EU – has already been shipping for some time fully integrated into Windows. Sweet, right?

In order to placate hardware marketers *and* offer a wide product line, Microsoft locks in their DRM scheme and calls it “Plays for Sure” as in – buy this device and your music plays for sure! This way, they must’ve believed, people won’t be scared of the lock-in, but rather know that there is guaranteed compatibility.

Fast forward to now – the Zune comes out, and guess what doesn’t play at all (for sure)? Right! All of your old WMA files, all of your “Plays for Sure” songs, songs you’ve paid for – Gonzo. Zero. Cero. Zilch. Nada. Nuttin. They are flat out unusable on the Zune. Someone, somewhere, decided to take a different spin with the Zune, and all the old tracks you bought are now useless on this device. In other words, prepare to buy all of your purchased music again, at least, if you intend to use any of it on your Zune.

Furthermore, have you made yourself at home in Windows Media Player? Because you can kiss that goodbye too. Microsoft ditched WMP for the new Zune software. Not only that, but even if you load unrestricted files onto your Zune, they become restricted on your Zune! So if you download a free mp3 podcast – or better yet, your band’s demo song, which you WANT to give away – and beam it over wi-fi to someone, a practice inexplicably called “squirting,” – which is pretty much the only cool feature missing from the iPod – they get 3 days or 3 plays (whichever comes first, natch) to check it out. How incredibly useless.

Did I mention that the RIAA gets a cut of every Zune sold, because the chairman of Universal says that if you buy one of these devices, you’re obviously a thief who downloads music illegally? Well, [[http://billboard.com/bbcom/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003380831|it happened]]. Microsoft must acknowledge that people who use portable music players are thieves, because they are cutting in the music companies on the sale of the HARDWARE. Explain that one!

You see, the way I see it, the iPod is a success for three reasons:

  1. Ease of use for a user
  2. Useful features that users want
  3. Unobtrusive DRM

Users don’t care about the record companies. Apple treats them like they are: third rate money grubbers who are unable to adapt to a new business model who will eventually become their own demise. But they get paid, because they have to, and users aren’t subject to that nonsense. The iPod caters to the user. You barely notice the DRM, the software to manage your songs is effortless, cross platform, and logical, the device can be used as a hard drive, and the music is fairly priced.

But the best reason is the DRM itself – the DRM is built around the Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) codec, which is built on MP4, the successor to MP3. It’s unlikely we’ll see this fall by the wayside. When someone “cracks” the rights management of Apple’s “Fairplay” DRM – which happens regularly – Apple simply updates it.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has now demonstrated that if they don’t have a high enough market share, they will screw their customers, obsolete their audio collection, and introduce a new revenue stream, forcing you to re-buy all of your music if you want to use an updated device. They have updated WMA several times, several times have broken compatibility, and ultimately built a parallel system.

You can’t have any faith in the Zune. If you dedicate ANY of your time and money to it, there is no guarantee whatsoever that you won’t be abandoned in the next 6 months, year, or even two years. Your music will be useless, your music stream could become suddenly unavailable, and your purchases unplayable elsewhere. In short, nothing is ever “for sure” with Microsoft.

The iPod, conversely, has a long history and is selling like hotcakes. Even the third alternative, which is choosing from the rich and varied line of portable players for the Windows Media line – is a poor choice now that Microsoft themselves have stopped supporting it in their new products.

In fact, there are really *no* compelling reasons to buy a Zune. They aren’t prevalent, there are no third party devices to extend its functionality yet, and investing in the “assume you’re a thief” DRM scheme is risky at best.

Let me conclude with a quote from Saturday Night Live’s weekend update from last weekend: “On Tuesday, Microsoft released their iPod competitor, the Zune. Zune, as in ‘Hey, your Zune isn’t as cool as my iPod.’