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Brier Dudley's Blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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October 15, 2012 10:14 AM

Windows 8 to come with free music, but no Zune

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft finally is saying goodbye to the Zune brand for good.

But instead of cuing up a dirge, the company is marking the occasion by throwing a music party.

Starting Tuesday, the company is dropping the Zune brand from its digital music store and streaming service, which now will be referred to as Xbox Music.

Xbox Music also will be the default music player on Windows 8 PCs and tablets when they go on sale Oct. 26, taking the place of Microsoft's trusty Windows Media Player.

Xbox Music_My Music.jpg
To sweeten the deal, Microsoft is providing free access to stream its entire music catalog on Windows 8 tablets and PCs.

"It will be the only tablet operating system that has free streaming of music," said Yusuf Mehdi, head of strategy and marketing in Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment business.

Free access to the catalog, which has about 18 million songs in the U.S. and 30 million globally, will be unlimited for six months, after which Microsoft will taper down access and encourage people to start paying $10 per month for an ad-free version of the service.

To support the free service, brief ads will be played about every 15 minutes.

The ad-free version of the service is comparable to streaming services offered by companies such as Spotify and Rhapsody.

Xbox Music_Enter Artist.jpg
The audio quality of the paid service will be slightly higher -- 256 kilobytes per second vs. 192 Kbps for the free version.

Xbox Music also includes a digital store, for downloading and buying music.

Like the Zune service, the Xbox Music service includes "smart playlists" that can automatically generate playlists around artists or genre.

Windows 8 users with Xbox Live premium subscriptions will be able to use "Smartglass" to play music selected on a tablet through a TV connected to an Xbox.

Microsoft launched Zune in 2006 -- with Bill Gates appearing at a launch concert in Seattle's Westlake Park -- as a belated challenge to Apple's iPod.

Last year, Microsoft discontinued Zune hardware but the brand continued on the Xbox and Windows Phone devices, where the company's music and video store are called the Zune Marketplace.

The Xbox Music brand will begin rolling out with an upgrade to the Xbox console that begins Tuesday.

It will come to Windows 8 when it launches Oct. 26 and to Windows Phone devices with the new version of the platform that arrives Oct. 29.

Zune lives on in spirit, though. The bold interface design of the player and service were a major influence on the design of Windows Phone and Windows 8.

Here's Gates at the Zune launch, in a 2006 photo by Ken Lambert, Times staff photographer:

2003423137.jpg

Here's Microsoft's comparison of Xbox music with other streaming music services:

xbm.jpg

Comments | Category: Bill Gates , Digital media , Gadgets & products , Games & entertainment , Microsoft , Rhapsody , Sonos , Windows 8 , Windows Phone , Xbox , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

June 14, 2012 1:44 PM

Source: Nope, Microsoft's not buying Hulu

Posted by Brier Dudley

I made a crazy guess about what Microsoft's going to announce at its surprise press event Monday in Los Angeles, but I guess it was a little too crazy.

I speculated that Microsoft might announce a big deal with streaming video provider Hulu.

But a source familiar with the situation just told me that's not happening. Apologies for building any false hopes.

My speculation was based on recent moves that Microsoft's made, ahead of the Windows 8 launch.

I still think it needs to bulk up its video application and service for Windows tablets, phones and the Xbox. Bringing Hulu into the fold would be a quick way to make this happen, beyond the video apps the Xbox group has lined up.

It would also do more for the consumer appeal of Windows tablets than adding the Yammer enterprise collaboration and message network, which is what some other news outlets are predicting will be announced on Monday.

Here's what I was thinking:

Hulu_Video_Player_Page.jpg
Hulu's huge library of TV shows and movies would add value to the Xbox Live paid subscription service, which is increasingly turning into a video delivery platform.

Hulu also has a system for delivering TV shows and movies free, funded by advertising. Many of the Hulu engineers who developed this technology previously worked at Microsoft and the company's chief executive, Jason Kilar, is an Amazon.com veteran who still spends time in Seattle.

Microsoft has been signing up all sorts of video content providers to offer their apps on its platform, including Hulu Plus. The company also has been increasing video rentals and sales through the Zune marketplace, which serves as the official Xbox video store.

But the company's video service needs a boost, especially to compete with the free content that Amazon.com is providing to Kindle Fire users and others who subscribe to its Prime service.

Music and video are two of the key apps that Microsoft will bundle with tablets running the RT version of Windows 8 coming this fall. The company previewed the music app last week at the E3 conference, saying it will be an improved version of the Zune service with 30 million tracks.

The company also made a deal in April with Barnes & Noble to ensure Windows devices have a premium reading app and service.

But there's been no word yet on if and how the company will upgrade the video app and service, which will also support the company's phones, consoles and PC operating system.

Hulu's owners tried to sell the company last year but couldn't line up a buyer and took it off the market late last year. Some speculated it would fetch $500 million to $2 billion.

Hulu's owners include Microsoft's closest partners in the media business. News Corp. has long worked with the Redmond company to get its programming onto the Xbox and Windows Media Center.

NBC is Microsoft's partner in MSNBC.com, which may be in play. Reports last month said NBC is looking to buy out Microsoft's stake in the joint venture.

This sort of deal wouldn't just help Windows and Xbox. Imagine what the addition of Hulu could do for Bing, which already has a selection of TV shows streaming under its "video" section.

Los Angeles seemed like a clue. That's where Hulu is based, and Microsoft's gone there in the past to announce its big multimedia initiatives.

Microsoft's top spokesman, Frank Shaw, wouldn't confirm or deny it, or even discuss the possibility prior to Monday's announcement.

"We're not talking about anything," he said.

A Hulu spokeswoman declined to comment, saying it never comments on other companies' announcements.

I guess I'll sit tight until Monday.

Comments | Category: Digital TV , Digital media , Microsoft , Windows 8 , Windows Phone , Xbox , Zune , hulu |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

May 14, 2012 9:50 AM

Startups at Microsoft: Inside story of Xbox wins, Zune losses

Posted by Brier Dudley

The truly inside story of starting the Xbox and Zune businesses at Microsoft was shared in a remarkable lecture Friday by Robbie Bach, the retired president of the company's entertainment and devices business.

Thumbnail image for bach_web_01.jpg
Bach shared his unique perspective on why the Xbox was a success and the Zune was not during a presentation on intrapreneurship, or how to operate like a startup and launch new ventures within a large, existing business.

The lecture included advice for companies looking to foster entrepreneurial culture, and for all sorts of entrepreneurs entering competitive new markets. It was a breakfast event held by the Northwest Entrepreneur Network in South Lake Union.

Bach described the corporate retreats where the Xbox business was hatched and how Sony fumbled its lead and gave Microsoft the opportunity to get ahead in the console business.

"When the luck happens, you take advantage of it and run with it," he said.

It also helped that Bach's startup had $5 billion to $7 billion in funding available, he joked.

That wasn't enough to help the Zune, though. Bach admitted that Microsoft quickly realized it was too late to prevail in the portable media player business and in hindsight he would have built a music service rather than devices. Apple executed well and didn't give Microsoft the sort of breaks it had in the console business, he noted.

Bach's now focused on philanthropic organizations, serving on the board of audio gear company Sonos and looking to buy a mid-size family business like the food-service supplies distributor that his father operated in retirement.

Here's a raw video of the event. Apologies for the quality; it was taken with a new smartphone that was supposed to capture high-def video ...:

Comments | Category: Apple , Digital media , Entrepreneurs , Gadgets & products , Games & entertainment , Microsoft , Sonos , Startups , Steve Ballmer , Tech work , Xbox , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

October 3, 2011 10:34 AM

Rhapsody buying Napster, Best Buy gets part of Rhapsody

Posted by Brier Dudley

In response to growing competition in the subscription music business, Seattle's Rhapsody is buying Napster from Best Buy.

As part of the deal, Best Buy is getting a minority stake in Rhapsody, which was spun out of RealNetworks last year.

Rhapsody and Napster are the two largest "premium" subscription music companies in the U.S., the companies said. Combined they may stand a better chance against a wave of new and retooled music services being rolled out this year.

Thumbnail image for RhapsodyJon.JPG
"This deal will further extend Rhapsody's lead over our competitors in the growing on-demand music market," Rhapsody President Jon Irwin said in the release.

The sale is expected to close on Nov. 30, after which Napster subscribers will be shifted to Rhapsody. The notorious Napster brand will be dropped.

Napster's selling price and the combined total subscribers weren't disclosed.

The deal cements Rhapsody's position as the largest provider of "all you can eat," paid subscription music services in the U.S. and gives it a toehold in Europe, where Napster has a presence.

It also comes as the company faces new competition from younger challengers such as Spotify, Rdio and MOG.

At the same time, Netflix-era consumers may be warming up to the concept of paying about $10 a month to access huge online music libraries from computers, mobile devices and connected stereos.

Irwin said in an interview that Rhapsody is interested in additional acquisitions "that make sense" and further its growth.

"We're going to go after those aggressively," he said.

Consolidation was inevitable and could lead toward larger deals by Internet giants whose online music services don't have as much traction.

As smartphone and Web tablet use soars and mobile broadband proliferates, Microsoft, Google, Amazon.com and Apple will all vie to store and stream consumers' digital music collections on their networks.

Google, Amazon and Apple each introduced "cloud" services that provide online storage and access to digital music this year, but they don't yet offer all-you-can-eat subscription services. Microsoft has the Zune music service that's linked to Windows Phone and Xbox consoles and, with the upcoming Windows 8 operating system, it's going to put a bigger emphasis on storing, syncing and streaming digital content.

The Napster deal likely gives Rhapsody more than a million customers -- with esablished billing relationships. That will make it a more appealing acquisition target or at least give the company enough heft to compete with the big players.

Asked about the acquisition potential, Irwin said: "Our focus is going to be 100 percent on growing, providing the music experience for our customers and building value in the service we deliver for them."

His comments in the press release emphasized the importance of scale.

"This is a 'go big or go home' business, so our focus is on sustainably growing the company," Irwin said.

Scale also benefits the new social features the company added, including its new partnership with Facebook, he added.

Rhapsody has about 800,000 customers and expects to break even later this year. It lost $7 million on sales of $32.5 million in the quarter ending March 31. It has 150 employees -- including about 120 in Seattle -- and has sales of about $130 million a year.

Streaming music plans are increasingly bundled with cellphones, and Rhapsody's major focus lately has been expanding partnerships with carriers such as Verizon Wireless.

Napster began as a rebellious music sharing site that was shut down by record companies, but the brand lived on after software company Roxio bought the brand name in a 2004 bandkruptcy sale.

Napster then was built into a subscription music service that had about 700,000 paying customers when it was sold to Best Buy in 2008 for $121 million. At the time Best Buy was hoping the deal would help it better compete with Apple's iTunes store for music buyers.

Apple has continue to lead digital music sales but it's been slow to develop a subscription offering. It acquired streaming music provider Lala in 2009 but discontinued the Lala service.

Napster employs about 120 people, most at its offices in Los Angeles and San Diego. There are likely to be significant layoffs, as Rhapsody plans to close the Southern California offices.

"We'll be working with the Napster team to migrate the customer base and, to the extent that there are openings for Napster employees to join the team, we'll be discussing those opportunities with them," Irwin said.

The music libraries offered by Napster and Rhapsody mostly overlap so customers aren't likely to see much change. Napster subscribers will have their favorite tracks and other saved lists shifted over to Rhapsody after the deal closes.

Rhapsody's business, meanwhile, should continue growing through partnerships and acquisitions, Irwin said.

"I like our position -- I like where we're sitting," he said.

Comments | Category: Digital media , Facebook , Microsoft , RealNetworks , Rhapsody , Telecom , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

March 14, 2011 1:55 PM

Report: Microsoft kills Zune player

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft is going to stop making Zune media players, ending a five-year effort to catch up to Apple's iPod, according to a Bloomberg report.

The company will continue developing the Zune software that's used as a media player on the Xbox and in Microsoft's mobile phone platform.

Although the latest versions of the Zune drew respect for their hardware and software design, Microsoft seemed to have lost interest in promoting the gadgets as it turned its focus to phones.

Killing Zune hardware comes as Microsoft is reportedly building up a team in the same division to develop new media services allied with the Xbox.

A Microsoft spokesman provided the following statement:

"We're absolutely committed to providing the best movies, music, and TV show experiences through Zune on Xbox, the PC, Windows Phone 7 and Zune devices. We'll share more information about the evolution of the Zune entertainment service and Zune hardware as future plans develop."

Here's Bill Gates launching the Zune at Seattle's Westlake Park, sporting a brown Zune coat.

Comments | Category: Gadgets & products , Microsoft , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 12, 2010 12:07 PM

Hands on with Microsoft Kin: ain't nothin' like it

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft made some bold decisions with the "Kin" phones it unveiled today.

The groovy handsets coming out in May are aimed at avid users of social networks, the kind of people who live in Facebook and would rather text their closest friends than call or -- God forbid -- e-mail them. It's also the first phone with the Zune entertainment software built in, giving it the ability to play and stream content.

In designing a phone/message/Web device for this set, Microsoft created a radical interface that wallpapers the screen with profile pictures of users' contacts. The screenplay constantly changes as the contacts update their social networks and share information.

Thumbnail image for kineone.jpg

To share photos or Web snippets with contacts, you click the item and drag it to a green button called the "Kin spot" on the bottom center of the screen. It's a nice concept, but it took some getting used to. During a brief tryout at Microsoft this morning (for reporters who didn't attend the big launch event in San Francisco ...), the button I used the most was the hard key to return to the homescreen and start over.

It also took me a bit to figure out how to move backward in the menu, and to move away from the contact wallpaper to the "normal" list of phone features. It turned out I only had to swipe my finger to the right to call up that list, and tap the home button to move back.

I made a phone call and it sounded fine. Although the Kins have physical Qwerty keyboards, you dial with the on-screen keypad, which buzzes the phone a bit with each tap.

Kins also have a signature key on the keypad, with the winking ";)" symbol. Pressing it pulls up a list of emoticons for inserting into messages.

Of the two models shown today, the small Kin One is more striking. It's the size of a makeup compact with a slightly textured back and well-designed buttons that blend into the case. It's also remarkable to have such a small device with so many capabilities. It's not only a 3G phone, but also a Web browser, social media manager, news reader, camcorder and a 4-gigabyte music and video player with streaming capability.

The Kin Two has a 720p camcorder and 8 gigs of storage, but it's more of a standard slider phone.
kinonetwo.jpg
Where the Kin may have the biggest influence on other phones may be the companion Web service, the Kin Studio. It's basically a personal Web page provided for each phone, where users can bring their Kin experience into a computer's browser, and the Kin content and activity is automatically synchronized with the online service.

The Studio pages can be used to see, store, download and manage photos and videos taken with the Kins' primo cameras. They also display contacts' information and a timeline to browse what's been done with the phone.

Buyers of Kin automatically get the Studio service -- plus unlimited online storage -- when they go through the mandatory registration process with Windows Live and enter the world of personal cloud services.

No software has to be donwloaded to a Kin users' computer to access Studio -- it's all through the browser -- and it's equally accessible to Mac users.

Although the phone is aimed at younger buyers, a Verizon executive let on that the device could also appeal to parents who take and share lots of photos and videos of their kids. The Kin's video quality is "better than the Flip," John Harrobin said during the launch.

Strangely, Microsoft and Verizon declined to reveal the price at today's launch. Maybe they're waiting until they figure out what Apple and AT&T will charge for the new iPhones expected to surface this summer.

Other questions remain unanswered. For instance, there is:
-- No word on if or how developers can produce Kin applications.
-- No word on how the Kin might work with Xbox Live.
-- No word on whether the Kin will work with Verizon's upcoming LTE wireless service, which would help when streaming music and video to the devices.
-- No word on whether there will be bundles and discounts for Zune Pass and Xbox Live subscribers.

Kin buyers who subscribe to the $15 per month Zune Pass music subscription service will do so directly with Microsoft, and billing won't be combined with their wireless plan.

Microsoft was also bold when it came to naming the device. The good ol' boys in Redmond may have outdone themselves this time.

Product manager John Starkweather said the name was chosen because it refers to family and close friends -- the sort of people you'll stay in constant contact with using a Kin device. "Kin is the kind of family or friends you would shed blood for," he said.

If you're wondering, the Kin does not come preloaded with a selection of banjo music.

Here's Microsoft's video of the launch, including the initial demo:

Comments | Category: Microsoft , Phones , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

September 15, 2009 12:00 AM

Microsoft launches Zune, clarifies what's up with apps, raps iPod

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft's third and perhaps best Zune effort goes on sale today, taking on the new generation of camera and app-equipped Apple iPods with a relatively pure music and video player.

Continue reading this post ...


Comments | Category: Microsoft , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

September 9, 2009 2:01 PM

Apple squeezings: Tart & juicy coverage highlights

Posted by Brier Dudley

Sounds like a thin batch of Cupertino cider today, judging from the testy coverage of Apple's hyped "rock and roll" press conference today.

Silicon Alley Insider: "Good to see Steve again. But a snooze fest for any Apple fans expecting new, must-buy products."

Engadget on the new iPod nano: "We came and we saw ... but there's not much to say. It's exactly the same save for that new coating, bigger screen (which does help), and tiny little camera around back. Video quality looked decent, but you really can't tell on the small screen. If you've ever held a nano -- this is the same experience."

Engadget on the new iPod Touch: "We just got done handling the new model, and really, there's not much to say. It's a little snappier, but we didn't do any heavy game playing, and otherwise it's exactly the same. We thought it seemed thinner, but the cold hard specs stopped that idea in its tracks."

Gizmodo: "I don't expect Apple to deliver on rumors. After all, most rumors are crap, even John Gruber's iPod touch camera prediction. But that doesn't stop me from asking questions: Why the hell there is no camera on the iPod touch?"

Ars Technica: "All of the updates are unsurprising, and for the most part keep the various iPod models up to date. The nano obviously received the bulk of the attention this time around, making it arguably the value leader among the various options. We are still scratching our heads over the ho-hum refresh of the iPod touch, though. Despite the bump in speed and capacity, ignoring the other possible upgrades, especially the camera, seems like a very un-Apple-like blunder."

9to5 Mac: "Having rushed back from the European briefing, got to say the general consensus is that while the new improvements in iTunes look good, and while the iPod nano has been given some great new features, most felt a little underwhelmed."

I wonder if the off-put pack of gadget journalists will find anything to love in the redesigned Zune launching on Tuesday, or if you they won't be satisfied until MP3 players finally get 12 megapixel cameras, 4G wireless and terabyte flash drives.

Meanwhile, the new $150 nano+video camera is probably going to top holiday wish lists of well-off kids across the nation.

Comments | Category: Apple , Gadgets & products , Microsoft , Zune , iPhone |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

August 13, 2009 12:54 PM

Microsoft still using Seattle to give Zune music cred

Posted by Brier Dudley

The upcoming version of the Zune not only maintains the cute "Hello from Seattle" message, it gives it more prominence, moving the phrase from the back of the case to the side.

Here's a picture I took yesterday during a demo by Zune's Jose Pinero:

zuneseattle.JPG

Even more intriguing is the "Apps" option on the Zune's main menu, but Pinero said the company isn't ready to discuss what sort of applications will be available, how developers can participate or whether it will be tied to the new Windows Mobile apps store.

The Zune HD uses the same Nvidia Tegra hardware going into some Windows phones so it would seem natural to let developers write applications for both platforms. ...

Comments | Category: Microsoft , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

August 12, 2009 2:50 PM

Zune HD details aplenty, third time a charm?

Posted by Brier Dudley

The old Microsoft rule is that it takes three tries for the company to really nail a product. It looks true to form with the upcoming Zune HD, the third and apparently best version of the company's underdog digital music player.

Microsoft is clearly excited about the device, which it has been showing off for months at semi-private events.

Details are also leaking out from retailers. The device will go on sale Sept. 15, according to display material that Gizmodo received.

Amazon.com helped its cross-lake neighbor promote the upcoming gadget by disclosing prices early, briefly listing a black 16 gigabyte model for $220 and a platinum 32 gig model for $290, according to PC World.

The prices undercut the equivalent iPod Touch models targeted by the HD, which includes a touchscreen, Wi-Fi, a browser and high-def video (720p) that's output via HDMI.

The HD feels good -- it has a solid, machined metal feel and a great interface -- but it's also much lighter and more pocketable than its hard-drive-based predecessors.

Of course its success will probably depend in part on whether Apple lowers Touch prices and comes up with cool new iPods this fall, if it's not too focused on the rumored iPhone Nano and Web tablet.

Comments | Category: Apple , Gadgets & products , Microsoft , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

July 13, 2009 3:36 PM

Microsoft launching streaming music service, Bing Music?

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft plans to launch a new streaming music service by the end of the month, an MSN executive told England's Telegraph newspaper.

At first I guessed it would be a free, ad-supported version of the Zune music service, but a spokesman said it's a separate service that's not emanating from the Zune group.

It's also going to be tested first in the U.K., with no word yet on a U.S. launch.

Continue reading this post ...


Comments | Category: Microsoft , Xbox , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

May 26, 2009 4:41 PM

New ZuneHD confirmed, plus Xbox video overhaul

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft confirmed Tuesday that it plans to introduce a new Zune device this fall, continuing the company's uphill battle to establish itself as a player in the digital music business.

Details are still scarce but the new ZuneHD will include high-definition video output, HD radio, a browser and an advanced touchscreen.

Simultaneously Microsoft is stepping up efforts to put Zune software and Web services on other hardware, starting with the Xbox.

Zune HD_low rez.jpg

Continue reading this post ...


Comments | Category: Microsoft , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 28, 2009 10:43 AM

WSJ: Microsoft courting Verizon with "Pink" iPhone challenger

Posted by Brier Dudley

Everybody wants to play with Verizon, apparently.

First rumors began swirling about Apple working with Verizon on a budget iPhone and Web tablet device.

Now Microsoft has joined the party, offering Verizon a touchscreen, multimedia phone, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal.

The story suggests this is the Microsoft mobile product code-named "Pink," which has been linked to the Zune group by previous speculative articles.

According to the Journal, it involves Microsoft software on phone hardware another company will manufacture.

Here's my guess: The device Microsoft is offering to Verizon will be a blend of what Microsoft believes are its best mobile software products -- a melange of the upcoming Windows Mobile 7, with groovy design input from the Danger group and Zune's music discovery and social networking features.

I'm winging it there. More authoritative is BusinessWeek's new piece on what Apple's working on with Verizon. An excerpt:

One device is a smaller, less expensive calling device described by a person who has seen it as an "iPhone lite." The other is a media pad that would let users listen to music, view photos, and watch high-definition videos, the person says. It would place calls over a Wi-Fi connection. One of these devices may be introduced as early as this summer, one person says.

Comments | Category: Apple , Microsoft , Zune , iPhone |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 15, 2009 2:09 PM

More details about alleged ZuneHD, with Xbox games?

Posted by Brier Dudley

Reports keep trickling out about the next Zune, which looks pretty nice if it's for real.

Today's dollop, from Windows Mobile fan site wmpoweruser.com, says the following:

The ZuneHD will have a capacitive, multi-touch OLED screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio and TV out, from what looks to be a HDMI port on the side. The radio will now be HD and the device will support HD media playback, which will be available from the updated Zune Marketplace.

The ZuneHD will also support 3D Xbox games, but it is unclear what form this will take.

The device will come in 16 and 32 GB versions, and will support wireless sync. It will also finally come with a browser that supports multi-touch.

Here's a screenshot of the post showing what looks like an iPod-like brushed metal back:

zunehd.JPG

Wmpoweruser.com also suggested the device will be a showpiece for Windows Mobile 7, which seems a little odd.

Images with a floral marketing flavor appeared last week on Engadget.

Zune spokesman Brian Seitz wouldn't confirm the reports, but noted that Microsoft has said new Zune hardware is in the works.

"At this point we haven't announced anything. We said earlier in the year that we are working on some hardware. At this point we don't have anything new to announce on what the specs are on the hardware."

The Xbox reference is interesting, but I'd think the ZuneHD would need more than one button if it's going to face off against the snazzy new Sony PlayStation Portable rumored to be coming by the holidays?

Comments | Category: Gadgets & products , Microsoft , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

December 7, 2007 11:00 AM

Guy proposes with engraved Zune, she accepts

Posted by Brier Dudley

I hope this guy doesn't work at Microsoft's PR firm, because that would be taking things too far.

According to Gizmodo, Ben Podbielski proposed on Wednesday by presenting his girlfriend a pink Zune loaded with a slideshow set to romantic music. In the last frame, it said, "Sooo .... Turn The Zune Over."

On the back he'd used the Zune engraving service to etch "Will you marry me?" into the device.

Should we call that a Podbielskicast? At least he didn't ask by squirting her.

Comments | Category: Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

November 12, 2007 1:08 PM

Say bonjour to Zune 3.0 features

Posted by Brier Dudley

It was buried a bit by today's news about the Zune tats, Windows Server and Google's Android booty, but Microsoft's pending acquisition of Musiwave is really interesting.

The Paris-based company will give Microsoft new technologies for downloading and streaming music onto portable devices such as phone and media players.

Coolest of all may be its "Music Wizard" service, which figures out what music is playing by holding up the device for a few seconds and letting it "hear" what's playing. A few seconds later it displays the title, artist and album information, and gives you the option of buying the song or a ringtone, according to Musiwave's product description.

If it works as promised, it's quite a competitor to the technology that Apple and Starbucks developed for buying the music playing in the coffee shop with a click on your iPhone or iPod Touch.

Musiwave claims its technology works not just in coffee shops but "from your radio at home, in the street, in public transportations or public places, from your television chanels: clips, adverts, movies, from bars or discotheques, shops, restaurants, etc."

The company is mostly focused on mobile phones and Microsoft's mobile business is partly driving the acquisition. But so are the Zune and Windows Live groups, so I'll bet we'll see Musiwave technology in Zune 3.0. Maybe it could even be loaded into Zune 2.0 through updates.

From Microsoft's release today, which gives the latest spin on Zune boss turned gadget design czar J Allard's role at the company:

"Musiwave would bring key assets to us as we continue to bring our vision of Connected Entertainment to life," said J Allard, corporate vice president in charge of music at Microsoft. "Its software expertise and extensive relationships with operators and music companies would help us take our products and services to the next level, giving people access to whatever entertainment content they want, whenever and however they want it."

Comments | Category: Gadgets & products , Microsoft , Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

November 12, 2007 11:48 AM

Zune 2.0 review: Fair and balanced?

Posted by Brier Dudley

I guess the Zune review published today was balanced. Feedback so far includes constructive criticism from a Zune hater and a Zune lover.

Pro-Zune:

I sprang for a $99 Zune 1.0 after I found my Creative Zen would never have drivers for Vista. I think your review missed what, for me, is the most important differentiator between ipod and Zune: the subscription service. For $15 per month, I have access to millions of songs. Not only can I load them on the Zune, but I can stream them directly from the Zune software on any of my computers without even downloading. With multiple computers in our house, this means I can listen, instantly, to practically any album or song I've ever owned or heard of, in my bedroom, living room, or home office. It's like having the entire record store at hand for $15 per month. I just don't see why this isn't a bigger selling point -- maybe the kids are happy stealing all their music? Or the oldsters already own and have ripped all the music they ever want to hear? In any case, a player is pretty much just a player, but the subscription service makes it stand out for me.
Anti-Zune:
Nothing like the home town crowd shilling for Microsoft's latest me too piece of junk. Apple has very little to worry about with Zune. On the other hand, Microsoft can stand buy and watch Apple whittle into Windows market share. This is from a small business owner that will soon migrate the whole business from Windows to Apple OS X. Rock on!

Comments | Category: Zune |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

October 3, 2007 3:23 PM

Zune Tattoo Guy on new models and tats

Posted by Brier Dudley

It can really hurt to get scooped by a competitor.

Like when Laptop magazine tracked down Steve Smith, the Zune Tattoo Guy, for his take on the new lineup and an update on his body art.

Smith's claim to fame are three Zune logo tattoos that drew a mention on the Fake Steve Jobs blog. Of course, the 22-year-old Sioux City, Iowa, resident is enthused about the new models:

"I'll buy an 80GB Zune on day one and for Christmas I'll buy my friends 4GB Zunes and my really good friends 8GB Zunes."

But Laptop's golden nugget was the discovery that Smith's getting an Apple logo tattooed on his butt cheek and the Zune tagline, "Hello from Seattle," tattooed on his neck.

Maybe he should be the spokesmodel for the city's "metronatural" tourism campaign.

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September 19, 2007 3:11 PM

Details of new Zunes out, here comes the "squircle"

Posted by Brier Dudley

So was the Zune news leaked or announced via a gadget blog? Either way, tidbits are pouring out.

Enthusiast blog Zunescene started the ball rolling when a tipster dropped the basics: Being prepped for an Oct. 16 launch are flash memory models (code named "draco") with 4 gigabyte and 8 gig capacities and an 80 gig hard-drive model (code named "scorpio").

Images show a smoother, less chunky looking device with a new control interface switch/wheel thing called the "squircle." Here's how the source described it to the blog:

It doesn't have a center button, but it has a dome underneath so you can push it from any side, its really cool.

Also new is an olive drab color the source described as an "old army jeep green." I wonder if it's the same color as the special edition Halo 3 Xbox.

Next week Microsoft is participating in DigitalLife, a big press event in New York where computer and electronics companies show off their holiday offerings. Maybe we're seeing buzz-building ahead of a Zune unveiling at the show.

But the big question is pricing. Will the new Zunes be cheaper than the new iPods with comparable storage?

First-generation Zunes seem to be selling well since the prices came down. You can now get one for $149 at Amazon.com, where they've been the top-selling hard-drive based media player and top of the portable media player category.

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July 12, 2007 1:34 PM

Apple to copy Zune?

Posted by Brier Dudley

I wonder what Apple fans will think of the next iPod if it mimics the Zune's wireless-media sharing feature.

That's a direction suggested by a newly surfaced Apple patent application. Macsimum News dug it up and CNET chased the story today.

Now, if Apple, Microsoft or someone else would blend Wi-Fi, touchscreen navigation and DRM-free song sharing, then we'd be getting somewhere. I'd like one with a 64 gigabyte solid-state drive?

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March 29, 2007 5:26 PM

Pink Zunes arrive

Posted by Brier Dudley

Amazon.com's taking orders for the pink Zune, but the Zune's PR team wouldn't comment.

"We are actually not confirming anything in that area in terms of new colors,'' spokeswoman Lane Keough said.

Hmmm.

Nor would she comment on the rampant price cuts. With a little persistence it's easy to find Zunes for close to $200, down from their $250 list price, but Microsoft's not saying what's going on. The new pink ones are full price, though.

My guess is Microsoft's offering discounts to nudge sales up.

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March 29, 2007 5:26 PM

Pink Zunes arrive

Posted by Brier Dudley

Amazon.com's taking orders for the pink Zune, but the Zune's PR team wouldn't comment.

"We are actually not confirming anything in that area in terms of new colors,'' spokeswoman Lane Keough said.

Hmmm.

Nor would she comment on the rampant price cuts. With a little persistence it's easy to find Zunes for close to $200, down from their $250 list price, but Microsoft's not saying what's going on. The new pink ones are full price, though.

My guess is Microsoft's offering discounts to nudge sales up.

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March 27, 2007 9:20 AM

A Seattle story: The Xbox and Bruce Lee

Posted by Brier Dudley

In a story about cool dude Vermont creative director Michael Jager, Fast Company magazine talks about how he won the Xbox 360 brand design account.

During a 2004 pitch to the Xbox team in Redmond, Jager compared the first Xbox with the Incredible Hulk. He told them the next one had to be more like Bruce Lee, "to transition Xbox from this hulk of escaping power into this quiet power that is lurking, something still incredibly dangerous but with more of an elegance and grace,'' he said.

The Hulk vs. Bruce stuff became a "mantra" as the team developed the system's look and feel, the article said, quoting then Xbox brand director, Don Hall:

Whenever we evaluated our work in terms of guiding our deisions for Xbox 360 it was like, "This is too Hulk" or "We need more Bruce Lee."

Jager's firm, JDK Design, is credited with the shape of the box: "The reverse parenthesis design [ )( ] of the console is itself Jager's symbolic conjuring of the martial-arts master, representing the inhalation of breath befroe a strike."

JDK Design won over J Allard. He told the magazine it's the first time he's had a wandering career eye in 15 years at Microsoft.

The article doesn't mention it, but Allard went on to hire JDK to work on the Zune and apparently come up the brown color scheme.

JDK must be using its Xbox loot to buy some PR. Not only was the firm on the cover of Fast Company alongside Jimmy Wales, but it also received glowing treatment in a March 22 Business Week story that revisits the "brown is cool now" theme.

From the Business Week piece:

Taking cues from high-end audiophile gear, JDK first thought to design the player with a wood veneer, then considered leather or copper, which would take on a patina over time -- anything to depart from what (design director Malcolm) Buick calls the "preciousness" of white. Eventually, technical considerations mandated a molded plastic design similar to the Zune's competitors. But JDK sought to reproduce the analog emotional experience by using brown, a warmer tone virtually absent from personal technology products since the first Atari consoles a quarter century ago.

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March 15, 2007 12:54 PM

Zune drops price, faces competition from Slacker

Posted by Brier Dudley

In this morning's paper, I saw Office Depot was offering Zunes for $199 after rebate, down from the original $250 price.

Then I checked my e-mail and found a press release from Slacker, a San Diego company launching a new music subscription service it calls Personal Radio and a device that looks like trouble for Zune 1.0.


Slacker Inc.

The Personal Radio


For $7.50 a month Slacker users will be able access millions of songs. (It works with Windows Media content, so perhaps the company is using Microsoft's DRM for this service.) Slacker organizes the music in several ways, including a huge variety of "stations" dedicated to a particular artist.

The players match or exceed the Zune's key features -- screens bigger than an iPod, Wi-Fi connectivity and a groovy, alternative vibe (Slacker launched at SXSW).

But instead of using the Wi-Fi to share music directly with other devices, the Slacker players will use the radios to access the service's Internet-based music library. They'll also be able to cache music on the device, for listening offline.

Slacker does have some sharing -- it lets users send a URL pointing to their "station" choices to friends via email or instant messages.

Here's the company's pitch:

For the first time, Slacker Personal Radio Players will enable music lovers to play personalized radio everywhere they go. The new devices include integrated Wi-Fi and an on-board Slacker DJ. The Slacker DJ combined with the new Slacker caching system guarantees personalized CD quality radio stations to be played everywhere, even when not in Wi-Fi range. Slacker customers get deep, personalized radio stations with optimized radio programming sequences, continuously refreshed and updated to include personalized new music.

Additional Slacker device features include:
-- 4" full screen display featuring album art /reviews, artist photos/bios and visualizations
-- Support for MP3, WMA and video as well as "saved" radio tracks
-- Automatically save and refresh personalized stations via Wi-Fi, satellite or USB

The satellite thing is really intriguing, but the FAQs reveal that's a feature available with an optional car kit, not directly from the device.

Slacker said it's negotiating to put its music service on additional devices. It's already partnering with Sony to distribute music from Sony's library; could a Slacker Wi-Fi Walkman be in the works? How about Slacker on a PSP?

Either way, this may push the Zunesters to start doing more with Wi-Fi sooner rather than later.

UPDATE: A Zune spokeswoman called Friday asking where I'd heard about the $50 rebate, implying that it's not being handled by Microsoft and therefore the company isn't using rebates to indirectly lower the Zune price. I told her she should subscribe to the printed version of the Times, which carried the ad for $199 Zunes on Thursday.

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March 1, 2007 2:43 PM

Thumping Zunesters apologize to New York

Posted by Brier Dudley

Apparently a Zune promotion last Sunday night got a little out of hand.

The Zunemobile, a tricked-out Toyota FJ, was brought to a New York neighborhood with lots of nightlife and kept the party going, beaming its beats into the wee hours from the phalanx of huge speakers in the back.

It turns out some of the neighbors on Ludlow Street didn't welcome the social at 3 a.m., especially not the Justin Timberlake tunes, and filed a noise complaint.

They also videotaped the event and created a Web page -- wakeupmicrosoft.com -- to post their complaint and demand restitution from:

Ideally, if following the old adage of "eye for an eye," we would like to (legally) blast music throughout Microsoft's HQ during a week day. Preferably right before a large product release, when employee stress levels are at their highest. Alternatively and/or additionally, lump sum payments to all residents disturbed by this incident would be tolerated.

Instead they received an apology from Zune evangelist Cesar Menendez, who wrote "Sorry New York" on the team's official blog:

On behalf of the Zune team at Microsoft, I'd like to issue an apology to the residents of Ludlow Street (between Stanton and Houston) for the loud noise at 3:00 AM last Sunday (24 Feb). For what it's worth, this was not a planned or Zune-sanctioned PR event, a stunt, or any intentional marketing activity. And we've taken steps to make sure this won't happen again. To those folks woken up by the sounds of the vehicle, we apologize.

I saw the Toyota at CES in January and wondered how they'd use the thing. Next stop, Belltown?


Brier Dudley


In January, the Zunemobile parked at the Consumer Electronics Show.

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February 28, 2007 3:59 PM

Zune team: We're still No. 2

Posted by Brier Dudley

I was wondering what happened to Zune, after I noticed this weekend that they were gone from the Seattle Costco, apparently displaced by an ever-expanding display of iPods and iPod accessories.

Anyway, today the Zune team sent out an update saying their player "remains the number two seller" among hard-drive based digital music players. That's based on an NPD report for January sales that found Zune had a 9.9 percent share in the category.

That's down a tiny bit from the 10.2 percent share Zune had in December.

But the note today from Zune spokeswoman Lane Keough was upbeat.

"We believe this toehold in the market will enable us to make a deeper footprint as time goes on, and we're committed to expanding the Zune offering,'' it said.

Keough also said a firmware update will be released in mid-March to fix a glitch that has caused skipping of some songs downloaded from the Zune Marketplace. The update (to version 1.3) will "also improve overall software reliability and efficiency," she said.

Despite the skipping issue, downloads from the Zune store increased 65 percent in January and user subscriptions grew by 60 percent, she said.

By the way, did Zune boss J. Allard update his official bio at Microsoft's Web site since he took on new duties last month?

He's got a less alternative look in the current photo, but he makes up for it by including details about his eclectic taste in music. It all began when he plunked down $4.44 for Kiss Alive!

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January 31, 2007 3:21 PM

Microsoft refolds Origami team

Posted by Brier Dudley

Zune isn't the only Microsoft gadget group seeing changes.

Over at the Origami/UltraMobile PC team, group manager Dustin Hubbard and most of his team are being reassigned to a new secret project at Microsoft.

Hubbard, who started the crazy Origami hype last year, disclosed the changes on the OrigamiProject team blog at 10 p.m. Tuesday. Today the blog's RSS feed has been discontinued.

The UMPC project continues, however. Oscar Koenders will be the new product unit manager, Dustin said in his entry.

I wonder if the changes are good or bad signs. Microsoft seems to be waffling on its commitment to the UMPC project, at least compared with the mojo behind Zune.

If Microsoft and its partners ever get them right, UMPCs could be an interesting alternative to the iPhone. Maybe that's what Dustin's going to work on?

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January 23, 2007 4:21 PM

Zune diagnosis: An enlarged prostate

Posted by Brier Dudley

Apparently its squirting has become irregular.

But the bigger question is over Microsoft's handling of that and another minor black eye on the eve of Vista's launch. Where has the spin doctor been?

Instead of waffling on a Zune glitch that prevents some song sharing, why didn't Microsoft fess up right away and say when a fix can be expected? How about giving the affected customers a batch of free songs, or at least providing guidance so this doesn't scare away Zune buyers more than it already has? Can the unsquirtable songs be tagged and sold at a discount?

Instead of trying some creative damage control -- as it's done with great Xbox customer service -- it's just shrugging and saying it's a 1.0 product. Wait for the service pack, I guess.

Then Microsoft looked untoward because it hired a vendor to correct Wikipedia entries. If the company truly had difficulty fixing the entries itself, it should have offered some proof.

It may have seemed safe to use a vendor, rather than touch Wikipedia directly. Other companies probably do that all the time. But Microsoft ended up looking as if it doesn't get it, even though it has plenty of employees who do.

Doesn't anybody in Redmond have a way to reach Jimmy Wales? Maybe they should invite him to an arm wrestling match with Ray Ozzie at Mix.

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January 22, 2007 4:06 PM

The next Zunes

Posted by Brier Dudley

Ars Technica has some details on "Zune 2.0": A 12 gig flash model could come by the end of 2007, and the Wi-Fi could be used to buy and download songs at hotspots.

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January 18, 2007 5:23 PM

Zune vs. iPhone comparison not so farfetched

Posted by Brier Dudley

I've been getting a hard time from a few commenters over the Zune vs. iPhone headline on a post yesterday.

I responded in the comments a little too soon. I wish I'd first seen the Zune trademark paperwork dug up by blogger Long Zheng and called out by Mary Jo Foley.

Microsoft asked that the Zune trademark apply not only to multimedia players but also to "entertainment and communications devices," including cellphones.

Zune services described in the application include most everything on the iPhone feature list and more:

telecommunication services; electronic transmission of data files, documents, music and videos over the Internet and wireless networks; electronic mail services; web messaging services; text messaging services; paging services; streaming of audio and video material over the Internet and wireless networks; wireless voice mail services; voice-activated dialing services; providing wireless access to computer networks and the Internet; cellular telephone services; and audio, video and television broadcasting and transmission

It's not a surprise that Zune phones are coming. I reported on this in September.

But it's fascinating to see the array of potential services covered by the trademark, which was processed by the patent office yesterday.

Who knows what form Zune phones will take -- a slab touchscreen would seem lame at this point -- but Microsoft is clearly thinking about hybrid phone/media players similar to the iPhone.

This isn't rah-rah Microsoft stuff. The company goofed by not getting out there sooner with a multifunction device, letting Apple stay ahead. It's also going to be sticky if Microsoft goes head to head with the phone makers that are warming up to Windows Mobile.

This should also be good news to Mac fans -- not because they want a Zune phone, but because competition from Microsoft could force Apple to make the iPhone more affordable and flexible with its phone platform.

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January 17, 2007 5:00 PM

Zune: A solid number two, give it three years

Posted by Brier Dudley

That's the latest word from Microsoft, which passed along NPD sales data showing the Zune accounted for 10.2 percent of sales of hard-drive-based portable music players in December.

Robbie Bach said as much at CES but the release adds a bit more detail, and some rah-rah about Zune reaching its goal of becoming "the clear number two seller this holiday behind an entrenched competitor."

"No other single device has been able to achieve these kinds of results in a six week launch period and we remain on track to exceed one million units in sales by the end of the current fiscal year (ending June 30, 2007),'' it said, then reiterated that Micrsoft has a "thee-year plan to solidify our presence within this market."

At first I wondered why Microsoft sent out the release, midway between Robbie's presentation at CES and Microsoft's quarterly earnings report on the 25th.

Then I figured out that, duh, it's a counterpoint to Apple's news about a banner holiday for iPod sales.

Not much commentary on the iPod numbers over at the official Zune blogs, yet. I wonder if David will stir the pot as he did with the Forrester iTunes report.

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January 17, 2007 5:00 PM

Zune: A solid number two, give it three years

Posted by Brier Dudley

That's the latest word from Microsoft, which passed along NPD sales data showing the Zune accounted for 10.2 percent of sales of hard-drive-based portable music players in December.

Robbie Bach said as much at CES but the release adds a bit more detail, and some rah-rah about Zune reaching its goal of becoming "the clear number two seller this holiday behind an entrenched competitor."

"No other single device has been able to achieve these kinds of results in a six week launch period and we remain on track to exceed one million units in sales by the end of the current fiscal year (ending June 30, 2007),'' it said, then reiterated that Micrsoft has a "thee-year plan to solidify our presence within this market."

At first I wondered why Microsoft sent out the release, midway between Robbie's presentation at CES and Microsoft's quarterly earnings report on the 25th.

Then I figured out that, duh, it's a counterpoint to Apple's news about a banner holiday for iPod sales.

Not much commentary on the iPod numbers over at the official Zune blogs, yet. I wonder if David will stir the pot as he did with the Forrester iTunes report.

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January 12, 2007 11:30 AM

"Zune" sounds cool in Scottish

Posted by Brier Dudley

Craig Ferguson is a funny guy. Too bad we'll never see him as the celebrity talent in any Microsoft launches, skits or promotions:

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December 7, 2006 5:14 PM

Zune discounting already?

Posted by Brier Dudley

A mass mailer from Dell is offering 10 percent off Zunes purchased at "your local Dell store," which around here means the stores at Northgate, Southcenter, Tacoma and Alderwood malls.

Is Dell eating this discount, or is Microsoft using selective price cuts to move more Zunes?

Ten percent doesn't seem like much, but a Zune at $225 starts to really undercut Apple's $250 30 gigabyte iPod.

Then again, Dell may tack on shipping and handling fees that make the discount a wash.

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December 5, 2006 12:22 PM

Coming soon: 100 gig iPods, and Zunes perhaps

Posted by Brier Dudley

Next month Toshiba will start producing 1.8-inch 100 gigabyte drives that will be used in the next generation of MP3 players and portable computers, according to this ComputerWorld report pegged to the Consumer Electronics Show.

Apple is one likely customer. But Toshiba's also close to Microsoft -- it's building the first generation Zunes and using Windows Portable Media Center software in Toshiba branded players. So who will sell the first 100 gig player?

Toshiba says the drives can accommodate more video on personal devices. They may also be used to produce even smaller computers, perhaps Ultra-Mobile PCs.

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November 29, 2006 10:59 AM

Zune claims 2nd place in MP3 player business

Posted by Brier Dudley

Most entrepreneurs would be pretty happy if they entered a crowded market and claimed second place and 13 percent of sales within a week.

That's how Microsoft fared with its Zune media player, according to a report from NPD Group that should be more useful than all the speculation about Amazon.com's sales rank.

Based on data gathered from multiple outlets for the week ending Nov. 18, NPD concluded that the Zune took a 9 percent share by units and 13 percent share by dollars of the U.S. portable digital media player market.

That put Microsoft in second place behind Apple and ahead of Sandisk, a Flash player manufacturer that's partnering with RealNetworks. During the same week, Apple took 63 percent of the market by units and 72.5 percent by dollars.

"Microsoft attracted early adopters in a successful launch week for Zune, eking out SanDisk as the No. 2 digital audio player vendor," Ross Rubin, NPD director of industry analysis, said in a release. "This was especially impressive given the Zune's single capacity configuration and relatively high price point. However, Apple still retained dominant share during the week and Zune was still outsold by PlaysForSure-compatible players in aggregate."

I wouldn't read too much into the first week of sales, though, since they were skewed by the launch hype.

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November 20, 2006 11:37 AM

Zune review feedback: half for, half against

Posted by Brier Dudley

Response to the Zune review was 50-50 -- half the people who e-mailed seemed to like the review and offered thanks or asked for more info. The other half tore into me for shilling for Microsoft, which is odd because I didn't think the review was all that glowing. Here's a sample:

"You're the first journalist who hasn't written what an absolute hunk of crap the Zune is. You even got a kid to say how cool brown is. How many cookies did you have to bribe him with? Oh yeah, and there are those unnamed Apple store employees. Now THAT is compelling. There's only one answer: you must be on Microsoft's payroll. You're close enough to drive in to get your paycheck!"

"Nice article, especially the comparison to the Camaro. I and many of my
generation feel that the '68 Camaro is one of the sexiest muscle cars in
the world. Think I'll buy a Zune and tell everyone it fits me perfectly:
powerful, fast and incredibly sexy. Perfect for the nacent middle-age
American male :-)"

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November 14, 2006 4:03 PM

Winer wants to hack Zunecasts

Posted by Brier Dudley

Dave Winer said he had an early peek inside the Zune corridor and saw lots of motivational images of Steve Jobs. He also wants details of the device's protocols.

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November 14, 2006 2:11 PM

Bach to Bach Zune talk, and thoughts on Browngate

Posted by Brier Dudley

Zune boss Robbie Bach shared his thoughts on the Zune business and Sony's PlayStation 3 during an interview Monday at his office in Redmond. It may not captivate the gadget crowd, but I think the creative business approaches are where the Zune will really get traction against the iPod.

Bach also spent time with reporters in San Jose who ran a different Zune Q&A.

The San Jose guys were the latest to go off on the brown model. I didn't ask about the color because I think the subject has been covered enough -- Kim Peterson had a detailed story on it Monday -- but I think you'll hear more about Browngate as more reviewers get their hands on the device.

I think the brown Zune is a sort of Rohrschach test -- iPod fans over age 30 seem to think it's a big deal, potentially another misstep in Microsoft's ill-fated pursuit of Apple. Others seem just mildly curious.

At least that's my impression after carrying around a brown Zune for a few days. It makes me think of a comment I heard at the Zune offices in September -- that the brown color and soft texture evokes a wallet.

Any controversy about the color is a dream come true for Zune marketers. The conversation begins with the assumption that Microsoft made a bold move, even though the color choice was based on conservative market research and testing. It also deflects "copying the iPod" stories.

Tut-tutting about the color also makes the Zune more appealing to the young consumers Microsoft is targeting. Nothing makes a product more attractive to them than knowing that it perplexes oldsters and the mainstream.

No wonder the brown Zune has a green tint around the edge -- that's the color of money.

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November 10, 2006 12:40 PM

Free Zune concert at Westlake

Posted by Brier Dudley

To mark the launch of its Zune media player, Microsoft is paying for New York rockers Secret Machines to play a free concert Monday at the Westlake park at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street.

Similar "flash" concerts are happening in New York, L.A., Chicago, Atlanta and Miami on Monday, featuring an assortment of funky bands. Funny, they forgot the Bay Area.

I wonder if any members of Microsoft's Vista team will still be partying downtown when Monday's show begins.

The Secret Machines sound fun, but L.A. and New York are getting the A-listers: Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queens of the Stone Age.

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November 9, 2006 11:16 AM

Zune leaves Pogue & Mossberg conflicted

Posted by Brier Dudley

As expected, Microsoft gave the first Zune review opportunities to the Wall Street Journal's crusty Apple-loving Walt Mossberg and the New York Times Macaholic David Pogue.


Dean Rutz/Seattle Times
The Zune was unveiled in a press conference in September.

Walt liked the Zune's interface, saying it's actually better in some ways than the iPod's. But he was persnickety about the "big chunky" case and the battery life that he called "very disappointing."

Pogue was even more conflicted. He said the "noticeably thicker" Zune can't match the coolness of his iPod, he dissed its control wheel and gave it the old "Microsoft version 1.0" dig. But he acknowledged the Zune is an "excellent" player, he didn' take issue with its battery life and he said its software is "beautiful, simple and graced by brief, classy animations."

I've played with the Zune several times and didn't find the case big and chunky, especially compared with devices like the MusicGremlin. The Zune is a bit bigger than the iPod, but we're still talking about 30 gigabytes of music storage in something that's about the size of a deck of cards. I think their deep and unwavering love for the iPod is revealed by their making a big deal out of 0.2 inches of thickness on a device that has a bigger screen and radio features that the iPod lacks.

Walt didn't mention the finish, which seems like an important point of differentiation since the devices are meant to be fondled and fiddled with like a pipe or worry beads. On that front, I prefer the velvety feel of the Zune to the slick, metal and plastic feel of the iPod. That's pretty subjective -- it's sort of like choosing to drink beer in a brown glass bottle instead of an aluminum can -- so I'd definitely make sure to hold both devices before deciding which one to buy.

More objective is the battery life testing that Walt was able to do with the Zune. Microsoft hasn't yet given this lowly Seattle journalist a chance to do this sort of test, so I was really interested in Walt's take. He concluded that Microsoft overstated the battery life, but I wonder how much people will really care if they get 12 hours instead of 14 hours of music on a single charge.

Microsoft claims 14 hours of music playback on a single charge with the wireless feature turned off -- the same as the comparable iPod -- and 13 hours with wireless turned on. But Microsoft bases these claims on strict and unnatural usage conditions, such as never increasing the default volume, playing only one album over and over, and keeping the backlight on for just one second.
I tested the Zune in more normal conditions, shuffling through hundreds of songs, adjusting the volume where needed, skipping or repeating songs occasionally and using a 30-second backlight. In my test, I got just 12 hours and 18 minutes of music playback, versus 14 hours and 44 minutes from an iPod under the same usage pattern. With the wireless turned on, battery life on the Zune was worse -- just 10 hours and 12 minutes, even though I didn't send or receive any songs.

Pogue rightfully gives Microsoft the third-degree for its previous missteps in the media player business before he gets to the Zune.

As it turns out, the player is excellent. It can't touch the iPod's looks or coolness, but it's certainly more practical. It's coated in slightly rubberized plastic, available in white, black or brown -- yes, brown. It won't turn heads, but it won't get fingerprinty and scratched, either. It sounds just as good as the iPod.
The Zune matches the price ($250) and capacity of the 30-gigabyte iPod. But it's noticeably thicker (0.6 inch vs. 0.4), taller (4.4 inches vs. 4.1) and heavier (5.6 ounces vs. 4.8). Battery life is the same for music playback (14 hours), slightly better for video (4 hours vs. 3.5). The three-inch screen has the same 320-by-240-pixel resolution, but it's larger (3 inches vs. 2.5), so movies and slide shows feel more expansive.
What looks like an iPod scroll wheel, though, is a fakeout. It doesn't turn, and it's not touch-sensitive. Instead, it's just four buttons hidden under the compass points of a plastic ring.
Scrolling accelerates as you press the top or bottom button, but the iPod's wheel is much more efficient. On the other hand, the Zune's left and right buttons jump between menus (for example, Album, Artist, Genre) with less backtracking. The software design is beautiful, simple and graced by brief, classy animations.

I doubt the hipsters that Microsoft is targeting with the initial Zune marketing will pay much attention to either review, but you know the team at Bear Creek is parsing every word. The Word of Walt may even factor into their performance reviews.

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November 2, 2006 2:27 PM

Zune website goes live

Posted by Brier Dudley

Still want to learn more about Zune? Zune.net is up today. It's got details and prices about accessories, information about concerts and artists sponsored by Zune and explanations of the product and download service.

In other words, it's mostly marketing/advertising/brand building stuff. But it's also where you'll be able to get the free Zune jukebox software after the portable device goes on sale Nov. 14.

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November 2, 2006 10:26 AM

RealNetworks Rhapsody phones on the way

Posted by Brier Dudley

RealNetworks will continue extending its Rhapsody subscription music service to new devices, including two categories of mobile phones over the next 12 to 18 months, Senior Vice President Dan Sheeran said today.

"You'll see mobile phones come to market that fit both those categories,'' Sheeran said during a presentation at the Northwest Entrepreneur Network's "Entrepreneur University" event at the Seattle Sheraton.

Rhapsody will go onto phones that can stream music stored on the network -- what Sheeran chacterized as the "celestial jukebox." The music platform will also be used on phones that can both stream network music and play music stored locally on the devices.

The phones with local storage are likely to use flash memory such as the Micro SD cards produced by SanDisk, one of Real's key partners as it moves its technology onto devices. SanDisk also manufactures flash-based MP3 players, including the first Rhapsody branded device introduced a month ago.

In his presentation on the role of platforms in business, Sheeran described how Real weighed different approaches for its new platform approach. It considered the closed-platform approach that Apple's using with its iPod and iTunes and the more open approach Microsoft tried with its "Plays for Sure" digital music platform over the past four years.

Real tried to use Plays for Sure but the platform had technical problems with interoperability and limited how much Real could develop unique products, he said.

"What we found was when we were dealing with somebody else's technology platform we were limited by innovation we were able to do,'' he said.

"Even if it worked at an interoperability level it was going to lead to a lot of services and devices that all looked the same."

That situation benefited the platform provider more than companies selling services based on that platform, he said.

Real realized several years ago that Plays for Sure wouldn't prevail and Microsoft would go a different direction, which it's now doing with the Zune product and its Apple-like closed platform.

"We knew that regardless of what they did we were going to have to get onto our own platform,'' he said. "We thought it was only a matter of time before they made the shift they did."

So Real developed what Sheeran characterized as a "hybrid" approach for its Rhapsody platform, similar to those used by TiVo and XM radio. Real maintains controls on copy protection and file transfer technology and specifies technology on the consumer interface such as the music guide.

"The goal is to define enough of the touchpoints between the different parts of the customer experience that we could really deliver on a brand promise if we put the Rhapsody logo on a device,'' he said.

Microsoft's mixed messages with Zune and Plays for Sure gave Real an opening to work with Best Buy, which is now the major outlet for SanDisk Rhapsody MP3 players, Sheeran said.

"Zune tells them that Microsoft doesn't believe in its own Plays for Sure market,'' he said.

As for competition going forward, Sheeran said Real faces "strong competition" from Apple and Microsoft.

"There will be more than one winner,'' he said.

UPDATE: A little context, now that I'm back in the office. Perhaps Sheeran was expanding on what to expect from Real's September acquisition of WiderThan, a South Korean mobile music company. Here's Tricia's write-up of that deal.

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November 1, 2006 10:03 AM

Study: Majority of iPod owners would consider switch to Zune

Posted by Brier Dudley

Flamebait of the day: A new report by ABI Research asserts that 58 percent of iPod owners would be "somewhat likely" or "extremely likely" to choose Microsoft's Zune when they buy their next portable media player.

"Our conclusion is that iPod users don't display the same passionate loyalty to iPods that Macintosh users have historically shown for their Apple products," principal analyst Steve Wilson said in the news release.

Only 15 percent of iPod owners surveyed by the Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based firm said they were "not very likely" or "not at all likely" to choose Zune when they buy their player. Among that group are the folks who e-mail me sometimes.

A New York Times story today starts off in the same direction as the ABI report, leading with a nice profile of a consumer anxious to buy a Zune. Then it draws on commentary from Zune skeptic Ted Schadler at Forrester Research, and concludes that Apple will maintain its dominance this holiday season.

Wilson said Zune's ballyhooed Wi-fi music sharing feature "isn't all that compelling, at least not for now" and Apple had better come up with something new in 2007 to maintain its lead.

"Apple needs a new high-end device that works really well and looks really cool, because other brands are catching up,'' he said in the release.

What does that mean for the iPod halo effect?

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October 25, 2006 1:54 PM

Did DVD Jon crack the iPod, or add another lock?

Posted by Brier Dudley

Jon Johansen's getting headlines again today for supposedly breaking the iPod's content protection technology, similar to the way he broke DVD copy protection in 1999.

A reader from Mukilteo e-mailed me to share his thoughts on Jon's ethics:

"Doesn't it seem ironic that a hacker is now trying to make money from something he has hacked. Will he be upset the same as the companies he has hacked, when someone hacks his ideas?"

A good point, and I'm sure lots of people are waiting for that moment to come.

But I wonder if Johansen's latest venture has been mischaracterized as a hack. That's a sexy story -- that a famous hacker broke open the iPod -- but it sounds to me like he's really developed a different form of content protection that will be palatable to everyone but Apple. That's a long way from cracking the DVD copy-protection scheme, and it doesn't sound like he's breaking any locks other than the Apple lock-in.

This interview with Johansen's business partner makes it sound like the new technology mimics Apple's FairPlay content protection. It can be applied to other content, a move that can fool iPods into "thinking" they're playing FairPlay content.

The technology can also be used to play FairPlay content on non-Apple hardware, apparently by fooling the content into "thinking" it's on an iPod. But it doesn't allow unlimited copying.

It sounds awfully similar to the FairPlay workaround that RealNetworks developed two years ago in its Harmony software. It allowed content purchased from Real to be played on the iPod, and Apple had a hissy fit.

Jon's saying he's got already got a buyer of his technology. Record labels would be interested in alternative ways to sell protected content to iPod owners.

What would be really interesting is if a company like Microsoft endorsed or even licensed his technology, giving them an indirect way to bypass Apple's restrictions. If it really does pass legal muster, Microsoft could even suggest using Johansen's technology to play iTunes content on the Zune.

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October 16, 2006 12:26 PM

Costco.com selling Zunes now

Posted by Brier Dudley

For $239.99 -- $10 below the list price.

That's close to the Zune discount Microsoft is giving employees at the company store. An anonymous commenter at Mini-Microsoft grumbled that they're getting only 10 percent off, meaning employees will pay $225.

Costco's taking orders but it's not delivering them early though -- it says they'll ship Nov. 14.

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October 5, 2006 2:14 PM

Into the Zune Zone for an update

Posted by Brier Dudley

After I voiced some doubt about whether the sharing feature of Microsoft's Zune player really works, I was invited over to the Bear Creek offices for another demo.

Sure enough, I was able to send songs back and forth between two devices. It was probably the ideal setting to share songs wirelessly though -- I was sharing music with a Zune product manager, Matt Jublier, in a conference room with the devices about a foot apart. I'm still curious to see how they work in the real world, especially places with a lot of wireless activity.


BRIER DUDLEY
Sharing music works in a demo at the Zune team's offices in Redmond.

You're only supposed to be able to play shared songs you receive three times, after which you have to buy your own copy. I was able to start a shared song more than three times, but didn't play it all the way through.

Microsoft is still doing builds of the Zune's embedded software, even though the device is already being manufactured and goes on sale next month. It seems down to the wire, but Jublier said the devices will get software updates automatically when people connect them to a PC connected to the Internet.

Among the things being locked down are the default settings. One decision that was made: The devices will be ready to share music wirelessly out of the box, but they'll also have a privacy feature turned on so that nearby users can't see detailed information about what's playing on your device. That setting can be changed if you want others to see what you've got playing, however.

Also interesting was the incidental tour of the Zune facility. The 180-person team was given the leeway to choose the look and feel of their offices, in a leased building across Highway 520 from the Redmond Target.

The team just moved into the newly remodeled first floor of the building this week. It has a large central atrium that serves as a cafeteria and meeting space. Furniture and carpets are modern, funky and colorful, and at lunchtime the tables all had clusters of people working together on laptops.

There are still individual, Microsoft-style offices, but they have sliding barn-style doors with silver hardware, frosted glass and espresso stained wood. Coming Zune: An in-house gym.

Here's an earlier column on the Zune, and Ben Romano's story on the September unveiling.

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September 28, 2006 4:11 PM

Zune battery life question

Posted by Brier Dudley

In response to a question today about how the Zune's battery life is affected by its wireless capability, I asked Microsoft for the official word on this topic.

The answer: Using Zune's WiFi radio shortens the battery life by an hour or two, or more depending on how much you use the wireless feature.

Zune spokeswoman Katy Gentes just told me via e-mail that the team is "working hard to minimize the impact of wireless so the difference in battery life for wireless on v. off is relatively minimal. The team has said it's looking at up to 13 hours of audio and 4 of video with wireless off. Wireless will probably shave an hour or two off that number for audio with a comparable ratio for video, but we're still testing so I can't confirm final numbers. Of course if you're continuously sending music during that time that will impact battery life as well."

So if you share some music with a Zune, the device should play for 11 or 12 hours on a charge. If you share a lot of music with your pals, you may want to ask for some electricity in return.

It's not an apples to apples comparison, so to speak, since the iPod doesn't have a wireless radio, but Apple claims its 30 gigabyte model has up to 14 hours of battery life playing music and up to 3.5 hours playing video.

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September 28, 2006 10:54 AM

The Zune: Good deal or bad?

Posted by Brier Dudley

At $249, the Zune seems like a better deal than the $249 30 gigabyte iPod, especially if the Zune's W-iFi features work as promised.

But so far we haven't been able to get independent analysis of its performance, and the Wi-Fi sharing demo apparently failed during the Microsoft employee meeting last week.

Even without the W-iFi, the 30 gigabtye Zune has more in the box than the 30 gig iPod -- the Zune has a bigger screen (3'' to the iPod's 2.5''), an FM tuner that displays information about the songs that are playing and it comes with 25 songs and a mix of music videos.

The interfaces are pretty comparable, and both devices are pleasant to hold and fiddle with.

To get FM radio on the iPod you have to pay aound $50 more for an accessory.

But the iPod is more of a sure thing. It has more accessories available and, being in its sixth iteration, its kinks have been pretty much worked out.

Zune's cost advantage may be lost on consumers if there's a glitch in the Wi-Fi sharing feature, however. I'm sure it works -- I was apparently able to share a song during the press demo a few weeks ago -- but it involves a tricky mix of Wi-Fi and copy protection software that may be fickle in the real world.

Apple's probably already revving up a marketing campaign to help sympathetic bloggers emphasize the ambiguity about the Zune's performance, just in case Microsoft doesn't clear things up before the Nov. 14 launch.

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September 19, 2006 12:48 PM

Corny side of the Zune boss

Posted by Brier Dudley

Nina Shapiro wrote a nice profile of J. Allard that discloses one of his marketing research tricks.

"Once a month," he says, "I go to Target. I get a corn dog, walk the aisles, and listen to customers."

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September 18, 2006 3:12 PM

Rhapsody in your pocket

Posted by Brier Dudley

I'd heard rumors that RealNetworks was developing its own portable music player, but it was probably cheaper and smarter to partner with device manufacturers like SanDisk instead.

Today, the company announced that SanDisk's Sansa e200 series players will come with Real's Rhapsody DNA software -- and 32 hours of free music from major labels and independents -- starting this fall.

As some readers said in response to my Zune column on Friday, all this competition in the MP3 player market is great. It gives buyers more choices, it may push prices down and it could force the market leader, Apple, to develop innovative new products.

But what I want to know is whether Microsoft will be forced to give the Sansa Rhapsody players free promotion on MSN Search, just as Microsoft introduces its Zune player.

Under an October 2005 settlement, Microsoft agreed to promote Rhapsody on its search site, and Rhapsody will probably play up the Sansa and other devices that use its software. The promotions were to last 18 months, so Rhapsody's presence on MSN should be strong through the holiday retail season at least.

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September 14, 2006 1:42 PM

Zune's calling

Posted by Brier Dudley

Here at the Zune demo Microsoft is putting on.

The company said it's considering a Zune brand phone. A Zune phone is "definitely part of the future of this brand," Zune marketing manager, Chris Stephenson, said.

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September 13, 2006 4:56 PM

Zune alert

Posted by Brier Dudley


MICROSOFT
Microsoft is introducing the Zune digital media player.


Expect to finally hear Microsoft's official word on the Zune digital media player and music service Thursday morning. Press briefings are being scheduled, and Microsoft isn't being particularly secretive about it.

It's probably not a coincidence that the Zune announcement is happening while dozens of tech journalists from around the world are in town for a Microsoft hardware launch event today and tomorrow. It would be a bonus for them to learn about more than new mice and keyboards.

Thursday is also the day that hallowed Wall Street Journal gadget reviewer Walt Mossberg's column is published. It would be infuriating -- but not suprising -- if Microsoft has given Walt first crack at the Zune. He adores the iPod and Macs, so his take on the Zune will be pretty interesting.

Update: Here's the press release:

REDMOND, Wash. -- Sept. 14, 2006 -- Marking the next big milestone for its Connected Entertainment vision, Microsoft Corp. today unveiled details of the first products to be released under its Zune™ brand. Designed around the principles of sharing, discovery and community, Zune will create new ways for consumers to connect and share entertainment experiences....

Update 2: If Walt's got a Zune, he didn't write about it this week.

Instead he wrote about RealNetworks' Rhapsody service, which is now bundled with the Sonos wireless home music system. The Sonos is one of the slickest devices for streaming music from a PC around the home, but a basic system starts at $749. Subscribing to Rhapsody costs $10 a month.

With it's wireless connectivity, Zune may turn out to be a great alternative to the Sonos -- or at least force Sonos to bring its prices down.

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August 22, 2006 12:26 PM

Zunecast tonight

Posted by Brier Dudley

I'll be yacking about Microsoft's Zune project tonight on KUOW's "The Works" show. Here's a link to the feed, podcast, etc.

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July 27, 2006 11:50 AM

Robbie Bach: Zune coming in fall to U.S.

Posted by Brier Dudley

Think of Zune in context of Microsoft's entertainment lineup including Xbox Live, Xbox, Windows Live, MSN, Microsoft's TV efforts and Media Center PCs, Bach said today at Microsoft's financial analyst meeting.

"It enables us to complete the picture ... The experience of having Zune in that connected environment is going to be dramatically better than you get just having a portable media player," he said.

Other tidbits: The first device is coming to the U.S. this fall. Additional devices will come in 2007 and be sold in additional countries.

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July 26, 2006 6:01 PM

Zunes to come preloaded with tunes?

Posted by Brier Dudley

This blog entry by Zune team member Richard Winn suggests the music player will ship with some music already loaded onto its hard drive. I wonder if they'll have surprise tracks for buyers to discover, or if record companies will pay Microsoft to preload certain tracks, or both.

At the least, it sounds like there's some creative thinking going on about Zune real estate. Maybe Robbie Bach will share more details at Microsoft's analyst meeting today.

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July 25, 2006 4:05 PM

Windows Media and the Zune blogs

Posted by Brier Dudley

Microsoft's Zune media player and service are taking a different tack than Windows Media, so it was interesting to read a blog posting today by Sean Alexander, a member of the Windows Digital Media End to End Experiences team.

I talked to Sean recently about his work on Clix, another iPod challenger supported by Microsoft.

Zune seems to be a snub of Windows Media, but Alexander said it's perfectly normal for Microsoft and other players in the digital media market to take multiple, contradictory approaches.

At least two of the largest consumer electronics manufacturers compete on not one, not two, but three levels:
-- They supply memory for their own, and competitive MP3 players.
-- They design and sell MP3 "engines" (systems on a chip) for their own, and competitive MP3 device manufacturers
-- They design, build and compete for retail space for their own, branded MP3 players
There are many other examples that can be drawn within Microsoft as well; for example, Microsoft Game Studios competes with independent game publishers for consumer dollars on the same platform (Xbox) also built by Microsoft. In all these cases, relationships of trust must be established independently between product groups or divisions.

Alexander said Zune is "an integral part of Microsoft's vision for 'connected entertainment' that spans across offerings including as games, music and devices."

He also plugged Zune Insider, the blog of Cesar Menendez, one of two 'softies emerging as the official Zune blog voices. The other is Madison and Pine, the blog of Richard Winn, a music marketing guy who joined the Zune team last month.

Of course there's also a bunch of Zune blogs that have emerged. It's hard to say if they're enthusiast sites or just opportunistic ad vehicles, but Cesar's site has a bunch of links.

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July 24, 2006 10:25 AM

Rick Sherlund likes the Zune

Posted by Brier Dudley

The Goldman Sachs analyst expects the Zune to be talked up Thursday during MIcrosoft's analyst meeting.

"Scant details are confirmed officially, but we are encouraged by the many synergies between Zune
and Microsoft's other business," he said in a note to clients today. "We may be able to comment further when more details arrive, likely at the Thursday financial analyst meeting when Robbie Bach is expected to discuss this effort in more detail."

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July 21, 2006 2:06 PM

Xbox Zune's viral marketing campaign begins

Posted by Brier Dudley

A groovy video teasing the Zune player and service is now circulating, and it may outdo the Origami tease.

The "Comingzune" video is a cartoon with a bald man cradling a rabbit. A little person comes over and strokes the bunny.

It's set to the song "Us" by New York singer Regina Spektor, which may give a clue as to one feature of the device. The snippet includes the lyric, "take photographs and have fun."

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July 21, 2006 12:39 PM

It's official: Microsoft launching music player, service

Posted by Brier Dudley

The company confirmed today that the Zune brand music player and service will be available later this year. Here's the official comment, from the group that produces the Xbox:

"Today we confirmed a new music and entertainment project called Zune,'' Chris Stephenson, general manager of marketing in the Entertainment and Devices group, said in a statement. "Under the Zune brand, we will deliver a family of hardware and software products, the first of which will be available this year. We see a great opportunity to bring together technology and community to allow consumers to explore and discover music together."

Microsoft aimed the announcement at the music industry, announcing it in the new issue of Billboard magazine.

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July 13, 2006 1:53 PM

Xbox/Argo/Zune MP3 player: Get down with brown

Posted by Brier Dudley

The mystery device will be available in brown with green highlights, according to Digital Media News. It will also come in black and a third, undisclosed color.

The report, citing music executives who received a demo yesterday, said it's comparable to a 30 gig iPod and Microsoft will start selling them in the fall. It also said the massive Argo marketing campaign will include Super Bowl ads.

I wonder if the ad will have a woman throwing a sledgehammer?

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July 10, 2006 10:32 AM

The Xpod column

Posted by Brier Dudley

Good feedback so far on today's column, including a note from someone at Microsoft who thanked me for the commentary that touched on some of the big problems is company is having.

I also heard from guy with a Mac.com email address who said he's tired of all the cozy puff pieces about Microsoft in the Seattle papers.

It might have disrupted that balance, but if I'd had more room in the column I would have added more background details on how an MP3 player would complement the Xbox 360 accessory line. I might also have mentioned that the Xbox group signaled its leanings at the 360 launch by playing up the console's compatibility with the iPod and other non-Microsoft devices.

But like I said in the column, the story is about much more than just the device. Everybody and their cousin is rumored to be developing iPod challengers now, including Amazon.com and RealNetworks.

The devices get lots of ink now, but I wonder if we'll soon be paying more attention to the services and the overall media experience that a portable player, desktop player and online storefront provide. Apple's iTunes is my favorite desktop player and it has tons of great features, but it seems kind of dated.

Software media players in general have a database/techie feel that's great for enthusiasts who like to sort and organize their music. But these controls are intimidating to people who aren't as comfortable with computers and expect the simplicity of a home stereo system. Could that be limiting mainstream users' transition to digital music?

Speaking of limiting, I wonder if antitrust restrictions on Windows Media Player are another motivation for Microsoft to develop a digital media suite with a different brand. Regulators in Europe and Korea have ordered the company to sell versions of Windows without a bundled media player.

I wonder if those regulators would allow Microsoft to bundle an Xbox-branded player with new PCs - not as part of Windows, but as a third-party software product added at the discretion of PC makers.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.