Zune: Let's All Go to the Social

I walked into Biggs’ house Wednesday after about 12 hours of mental and physical anguish from being stuck in transit. Travel disaster in the extreme, complete with booking oversights, flight delays, nauseating turbulence, incomprehensible babbling Korean people and a midget with a perm. I was pissy, to be sure.

But then Biggs handed me a small box labeled Zune.

Now I can’t say it was a magical exchange where all my irritation was instantly cleansed by the light of Zune. There was no sunshine or chirping birds, it was still the same dreary Brooklyn night, but it was certainly a welcome sight for my sore eyes.

The box is laid out economically in a small and attractive package. The box slides open to reveal the message, “Welcome to the Social.” The slogan, of course, pertains to the Zune’s wireless connectivity, the Zune’s key feature. More on that later.

The device itself is nice, its most standout feature being a pretty 3-inch QVGA screen. It has an aesthetically pleasing appearance that carries an air of trendiness. The 30GB hard drive, while lacking for me, seems reasonable enough for many consumers. I would like to see various capacity options, but it should suffice for this early rendition. The FM will also be a welcome addition for many.

As silly as it sounds, I really dig that the Zune can be personalized a bit. The ability to set my own wallpaper is a welcome addition to that beautiful little screen. The iPod is rather monotonous in this category, so here is a nice, albeit somewhat irrelevant, way that Microsoft has set the the Zune apart from Apple’s iPod.

Far-and-away the best feature of the Zune is the fact that it comes preloaded with music, videos and pictures. This addition gives users the ability to pop open the box and immediately tear into the player. The music is pretty varied and some of it is actually pretty solid. I think I’ve become somewhat infatuated with the singer of CSS after watching the included video about 1000 times. Sigh.

One thing that is sure to throw most people off is the pseudo-scroll wheel. It looks like the iPod wheel, but it’s definitely not the iPod wheel. Everyone wants to scroll with it, but really it’s just a directional pad. There is absolutely no learning curve to it, it’s just a matter of clicking, but I showed the device to several random people and many of them expressed distaste for the controls. It didn’t bug me personally.

The interface on the Zune is great. It’s intuitive and responsive and it looks pretty. When playing a song, album art pops up in the background in a fashion that looks a lot better than the iPod’s. Browsing music is simple, with the device giving you options to browse by artist, album or genre. And the menus transition nice and quickly.

I foresee the Zune Marketplace being the biggest problem with Zune uptake. People have complained widely about the confusing points system. Indeed the points system does seem to be needlessly esoteric. It seems clear to me, however, that Microsoft is attempting to steer users toward the unlimited download plan. For $14.99, it is a reasonable option. Sure you don’t technically own the music, but it’s priced reasonably enough for most budgets. The selection on the Marketplace is admirable so far. I searched for a lot of music from various genres, labels, performers, etc. Of which, I’d say about 90-percent of it was available for download.

Unfortunately, the software interface is rather abortive. It is poorly designed and desperately needs an overhaul. The fact that it aesthetically matches the Zune device is cute, but ultimately irrelevant in the face of its functionality problems. Biggs purportedly tried to no avail to get it to function for days. My experience was admittedly smoother, but I was disenchanted by the navigation methods utilized by it. I think Zune success hinges on Microsoft rethinking the Marketplace to some degree, fortunately though, it doesn’t feel too off base. I absolutely believe it can be redeemed quickly.

So what of this much touted wireless connectivity, the social, if you will? I used my Zune all over New York City; in Times Square, Union Square, Columbus Circle, on the subway, at TechCrunch 8, and pretty much everyplace else I ventured while in the city. In all of my attempts, I never encountered a single Zune user wishing to socialize with me. It was pretty depressing to me and I now feel resolute in my concern that MS has put too many eggs in this wireless basket. It seems to me like a neat addition more than something that should be the cornerstone of the device. If I was unable to find a willing community of socializers in some of the most densely peopled locations in the country, I’m guessing people in other areas won’t have any better luck.

From a hardware perspective, the Zune is a solid contender, what Microsoft needs to focus on are the software issues. The fact that it is not Mac compatible will be a point of contention for many people, even for me. I’ve always considered myself a PC guy, but I do use a Powerbook. Since I travel a lot, this is prohibitive for me since I sometimes go weeks away from my PC.

I don’t want to end this on a bad note because I really don’t dislike the device. There are problems, but I think they can be worked out in relatively quick succession. Will the Zune usurp the iPod? Not yet, but I believe it’s a promising start. The iPod has a vast quantity of loyalists who will knock the Zune’s every move, but Apple fans have always knocked Microsoft, so that’s just the same old song. I’m not really sure what the future holds for Zune, but I wish it well.