The unveiling of Microsoft’s generation 2 Zunes has largely been met with a lukewarm reception from analysts and pundits alike. And while it’s true that the new Zune lineup is at best evolutionary rather than revolutionary, especially when compared to the User Interface innovations found in Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch, Microsoft has made some significant improvements — and, dare I say it, done a few things from which even Apple might learn a thing or two.
1. WiFi music syncing.
The original Zune’s WiFi functionality was seriously underutilized, with the biggest omission being wireless music library syncing. Zune 2 devices can automatically sync over a wireless network any time the device is placed in its dock or plugged in to charge. In comparison, Apple’s iPod Touch, despite featuring WiFi, can’t sync wirelessly with iTunes.
2. Support for audio and video podcasts
OK, podcast support is something which iPod/iTunes has had for years, so in this regard Microsoft is definitely playing catchup. Having said that, it’s still great to see the Zune Marketplace offering links to thousands of free audio and video podcasts — both amateur and professional — as well as the Zune software adding support for podcast subscriptions and the codecs required for native playback (e.g. H.264).
3. Windows Media Center TV recordings support
Having written before about Microsoft’s wider Internet TV strategy and the company’s ambitious plans for Windows Media Center, we’re not surprised to see better integration between the Zune and Windows Media Center. The Zune software can now automatically import television recordings made through Media Center for Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate editions, so that those recordings can be transfered to and synced with a Zune.
4. Social networking
The Zune’s tag line has always been “welcome to the social”, and now Microsoft is to roll out its own social networking site for Zune owners, called “Zune Social”. On the site Zune users will be able to create a customizable “Zune Card” that automatically updates to reflect the music they are listening to on their Zune or with Zune software on their computer.
From the release: The Zune Card shows most recently played tracks and highlights that person’s all-time music favorites. Other members of Zune Social can play samples of the songs a user has been playing directly from a friend’s Zune Card or link to Zune Marketplace, where they can buy or download the music.
“Zune Social” will also offer standard social networking features such as profiles, messaging, friend lists, and so on. Eventually, a widget will be available so that “Zune Social” users can display their “Zune Card” on other social social networking sites e.g. MySpace or Facebook.
Dedicated music-based social networks such as Last.fm and iLike already plug into the iPod/iTunes ecosystem, and it might be better if the Zune software integrated with existing sites rather than Microsoft rolling one of their own. Having said that, others have called for Apple to add better social features to iTunes.
5. Backward-compatible firmware update
Microsoft co-founder and CEO, Bill Gates, has openly called the original Zune “just so-so on the software side”, and the company is putting its money where its mouth is. In a free firmware update, version 1 Zunes will get all of the new features offered by the second generation devices (all of the software-related ones anyway). As Gizmodo says, this is how you should treat your existing customers.
More work to do
There are of course still a number of things about the Zune which are disappointing or damn right baffling. Number one on my list is the Zune’s approach to DRM and wireless sharing. Tracks that are shared over WiFi, Zune to Zune, can only be played three times (though they no longer expire after three days), regardless of whether they were bought from the Zune Marketplace or not, presumably at the request of the major record companies. However, this restriction also applies to podcasts that are shared wirelessly, since the software has no way of distinguishing between DRM-free music and podcasts.
I also think that Microsoft missed a trick by not releasing a hard drive-based Zune with a slightly larger widscreen display. As Mack. D. Male noted earlier on last100, such a device would fill a void currently left by Apple.