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News flash: Zune no iPod

Zune_flash_players Well, duh. Once again, Apple fanboy Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg and colleague Katherine Boehret reviewed an MP3 player by comparing it exclusively to Apple's iPods. That makes sense on one level -- the iPod is the market leader by an overwhelming margin. But it's also a product incapable of supporting subscription music services, so if you happen to want that option, the iPod isn't worth considering. Given that the Zune was designed to work with a subscription service -- Microsoft's -- the iPod can't be used as the sole measuring stick.

Let's be clear. If all you want to do is play songs you've bought or stolen, the iPod-iTunes combo remains the gold standard. But if you want access to a huge library of music on demand, especially new releases, you have to look at something like the Zune and Microsoft's Zune Pass service. Alas, Mossberg and Boehret's review of the new Zunes offers no insight at all into how the devices work with the Zune Pass, and how that stacks up against device-service combinations offered by Rhapsody, Napster or the other subscriptions. Here's all they had to say on the subject:

We each had Zune Pass accounts, which work like subscriptions. If the Zune account stops, all content acquired during the user’s subscription is lost.

Again, I say, "Duh." Judging from past columns, Mossberg dislikes subscriptions and doesn't see value there. But a sizable contingent of music fans does. If you like to hear lots of new or unfamiliar music but don't want to spend several hundred dollars on CDs or downloads, it makes sense to buy access to music through a service. If you're content to listen to what you already have, or if you're happy to download songs without paying for them, spending $10 to $15 a month on a service isn't the way to go.

Here's what I wish Mossberg and Boehret had discussed, instead of pointing out all the ways the Zune isn't an iPod:

  • How reliably do the Zune and Zune Pass handle subscription downloads? Portability has been a sore spot for other subscription services, and if the Zune can provide rock-solid synching, that would be a huge plus.
  • Can a Zune sync with more than one computer?
  • Microsoft has started offering MP3s at the Zune Marketplace, but those aren't available for downloading through the Zune Pass. Does that mean subscribers can't listen to those tracks (and there are tens of thousands of them) without buying them?
  • Is there a way to load the Zune automatically with subscription downloads, based on your music preferences? Rhapsody and Yahoo offer this feature, and it kills.
  • Will the Zune work with competing subscription services?
  • Can you load the Zune directly with subscription music, without having to download the tracks onto your PC?

Having raised those questions, I'll try to answer them in a later post. Maybe my curiosity is shared by only a minority of music fans, but judging by Rhapsody and Napster's numbers, there are millions of them.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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