Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My Year With The Zune....

....comes to an end.

But before I go there - first my apologies at the lack of posts in January. As a twitter friend has been reminding me (daily, Maria!), I already blew my New Year's resolution to post weekly. Hey, I do have an excuse: I was moving cities again! (This time to San Francisco - and here I'll stay...well, at least for a while.)

Now, back to the end of the Rocket Zune.

As everyone who reads this little diatribe knows, despite all the jeers and being the butt of all jokes on this topic, I'm a Zune fan. What's more, I enjoy the Zune Marketplace a great deal - it's a pleasure to use, and gives me access to millions of DRM free MP3 files, and has a great interface for dealing with podcasts. Also, for as much maligning as "Welcome to the Social" has taken, the Zune is - well - extremely social. The built in social networking aspect of the Zune actually works well. No, I've never "squirted" (ew), but I have taken advantage of the LastFM-esque aspects of the Zune Marketplace. Discovered a lot of good tunes that way.

So, if it's working for me, why stop now?

My current Zune is a Zune 80Gig model - works great, updated to version 3.0 of ZM without a hitch, and all the cool new features came along for the ride. However, my music collection has grown, as has my appetite for video-on-the-go: all of which has pushed me to upgrade to a higher capacity model: the Zune 120. So, when it came down to another $250 outlay, I had to think carefully...

First, there was the bad news from Zuneland this past quarter: Zune revenue declined by a frightening 54%. You might be tempted to blame that on the ailing world economy, until you realize that Apple's iPod sales increase 3% during the same time frame. (I haven't sat down to work out the math, but I bet the numbers come close to balancing out.) People have jumped ship - or, rather, not gotten on board the ship - in record numbers. As a WSJ editorial states, the Zune's market share is now flirting with 0%.

I have a theory about the decline, BTW: it corresponded with the release of the Zune Marketplace 3.0, and corresponding firmware upgrade, at the end of Q3 '08. Unlike Apple or any other media players on the market, Microsoft did not force you to buy a new Zune. All Zunes could be upgraded with the new software, and worked perfectly within the range of their older hardware limitations. (The equalizer software didn't work on the first gen Zunes, for instance, because they had no hardware to support it.) Everything worked: wireless synching, OTA buys from the Zune Marketplace, clicking on FM songs to purchase... all of it. And that may have been the problem...

By respecting their current user base and applying the backward-compatibility ethos which, like it or not, worked as a strategy for PCs, Microsoft may have shot itself in the foot. Who would spend another $250 on a new Zune if you didn't need increased storage capacity and you could get all the cool new features for free? Turns out: no one.

At any rate, even without the sales figure decline, I probably would have made the same call: the weight of the overwhelming market share of the iPod was taking it's toll: my cars have iPod ports, not Zune ports, for instance...and getting something as simple as an armband for the gym was problematic. (As it turns out, the armbands for the iPhones work perfectly with the Zunes...who says we all can't get along?)

So, with a $250 upgrade to make, I set the Zune aside (I won't sell it, I will keep it in a nice little shrine) and headed over to the Apple store to pick up a 120gig 6th generation iPod. (The iPod touch stalled out at 32gig? I crap bigger than 32gig!) I sat down at my laptop, cleaned up my music collection, transferred my podcast subscriptions over to iTunes 8.x, sync'ed it and fired it up.

There it was: my shiny new iPod looking all... well, iPod-ish. After a year of absence, its depressingly the same. Sure, there's cover flow and the sync icon is now orange (ooooo!), but other than that: the system is basically exactly the same. No wifi, no stereo bluetooth, no FM radio... no real changes of any kind. (The damn font still looks like it came from the first generation 64K Macintoshes from the 80's.) Moving from the Zune interface and feature set back to the iPod is, well, a step backwards in look-n-feel and features.

...and then there is iTunes. The "music management" system, and front end to the iTunes store, still looks like it was written by a first year college engineering student as a final project. Same old interface. Oh, sorry, it has "cover flow" too...right. (Do you really use cover flow to find albums, people? Really? I doubt it.) It also has "Genius" now, which doesn't seem to be using the information from the music genome project, like Pandora does, to get its relationships between songs. As best as I can tell does a simple stochastic match between what you've got in your library and what other people have in their libraries to determine what songs you have that possibly sound like other songs you have. (What's a good playlist that sounds like "Dani California?" Well, here's the union of songs that you have in your collection with songs other people have in playlists containing "Dani California." Genius.)

The final affront to my logic centers? iTunes is on Version 8, and it still can't tell that you've put new music into a watched directory. Moving from the Zune Marketplace to iTunes is like trading in the Porsche for a Volkswagen - sure, they are both German cars, but...come on. Seriously? I'm not the only one who thinks so - there's been a lot of articles about ZM lately, such as David Chartier's excellent piece in ARS Technica last week. (David: you almost had me reversing my decision.)

So, market forces win (remember when market competition was a good thing?) and I turn my back on the Zune to move back in with my old girlfriend, Apple. She has a new dress on, and pretty shoes - but I suspect she still can't dance - but everyone seems to think she's just awesome and she's kinda the only one at the party, so I'll give her one more chance.

...hmmm...wait, who's the iRiver girl over there by the bar...?