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What's The Big Deal About Making Music Players Social? Microsoft Zune and the Big Idea

by Erica Sadun

If you were to ask me straight out to name the most social gadget available today, I'd immediately say the cell phone. Nothing brings people together more, no matter where they are or what they're doing. Least social? Music players. Those earbuds cut you off from other people, sending you into a separate experience with its own soundtrack.

Consider teenagers. Teens happily spend countless hours chatting with their friends and text messaging each other until they physically damage their thumbs. Attach an iPod to their ears, on the other hand, and they become dazed automatons, cut off from parental communication and other human interaction--unless they happen to be text messaging while listening to their music.

So why does Microsoft insist that a social music player, its upcoming Zune, is the wave of the future? Can the Zune really be a "decidedly social experience"? Has Microsoft seen something new? Will the Zune bring the listening-to-music-while-text-messaging sweet spot to the market? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be a resounding "no"--at least for the first upcoming Zune release.

Zune social networking manifests itself through its Wi-Fi-based music sharing and its PC-based (and presumably MySpace-inspired) Zune Marketplace. Microsoft gambles that these two spheres are sufficient to define a new and unique Zune space.

Note: The information in this article is based on press releases from Microsoft and early reviews from the Internet.

Zune in a Nutshell

  • The 30GB Zune Media Player hits the shelves on November 14, with a suggested retail price of $249.
  • It offers a 3-inch 320x240 screen that supports both landscape and portrait modes. The Zune displays still and video images in addition to playing back music.
  • Built-in Wi-Fi offers device-to-device sharing using 3-day/3-play digital rights management.
  • The $14.95 monthly Zune Pass provides unlimited access to the Zune Marketplace music. Individual songs cost just under a dollar a track.
  • A built-in FM tuner allows users to listen to local FM radio stations. The Zune tracks Radio Broadcast Data Standards (RDBS) signals and can display the title and artist of the song being played on the radio.
  • The Zune can import unprotected tracks from iTunes and Windows Media Player.
  • The Zune is available in black, brown, and white models.

Zune Wi-Fi Sharing

Not everyone is wildly enthusiastic about the Zune's Wi-Fi connectivity. Google crippled Zune Wi-Fi, and you'll discover thousands of unhappy people discussing the limitations of the player's connectivity. You can't use it to sync to your computer. You can't use it to buy or rent tunes from the Zune Marketplace. You can't use it to send video. You can't use it to text message.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Zunes scan for other units they can send pictures and music to. (Image captured from YouTube).

Zune's Wi-Fi does precisely two things: it lets you share pictures and it lets you share music, for certain DRM-enabled values of the word "share." Shared music lasts three days and can be played three times max. After that, it auto-destructs. It doesn't matter where the music originated or who owns the rights. Once the time or playback limits are reached, the audio becomes unplayable.

Note: There's a debate raging in the Creative Commons community about this very issue.

So how will the Zune accomplish its goal of turning people into the "street teams" it envisions, popularizing music and virally spreading the word of great new artists? When you hear a song you really like, Microsoft wants you to stop what you're doing and take a few minutes to evangelize that music to others.

It works like this. To share any song from your Zune library, select the song and choose the Send option. The Zune scans the area around you and shows a list of all the nearby units that have enabled Zune's Wi-Fi and whether they're available or busy. Select a Zune from this buddy list--unique buddy names are registered to each Zune--and the Zune requests a connection.

The targeted Zune displays a prompt, asking the recipient whether he is willing to receive the file, i.e., "'Joe's Zune' wants to send music. Accept?" If the target Zune says yes, the transfer begins. Both the sending and receiving units display progress wheels during this process. The Wi-Fi whirs soundlessly and the music transfers from one player to the other, arriving with the 3-day/3-play DRM automagically added. The whole process takes maybe 30 seconds--from pressing Send to selecting a buddy to waiting for the transfer to complete.

Figure 2

Figure 2: A progress wheel keeps track of the status of the connection and the receipt of transferred files. (Image captured from YouTube.)

So does this kind of sharing allow the building of street cred? Can it act as a viral force to promote music? Here's the problem. Because of the 3-day/3-play/no-share limitation, that music is absolutely going no further than the first shared Zune--unless the sharing encourages the recipient to buy the track. Only then can the music reach its next link of viral customer. Think about that. It's as if YouTube said you had to fork over a dollar (or the equivalent in Microsoft's fake "points" system) before sharing a video with friends. It will stop the viral effect dead in its tracks.

Note: When you find a received song that you really like, your Zune allows you to "flag" it. This makes it easier to find that song later and buy it from the Marketplace.

Social Wi-Fi

If viral sharing isn't the big win for a social player, then maybe the interaction itself should be. But consider how the social interactions might take place. Social dynamics for sharing-by-gadget are tenuous, to say the least.

For a short time, when the iPod was fairly new, people experimented with a kind of iPod socialization. They'd unplug their headphones and offer their jacks to complete strangers in a bizarre look-how-postmodernist-I-am way. It was mostly a failure because it made people on the receiving end really, really uncomfortable. They didn't know what to do when the naked jacks were shoved in their faces, or whether they should counteroffer with their own iPods, usually playing some humiliating mix of Barry Manilow, show tunes, or easy listening.

Or consider that short-lived phase when people discovered they could beam business cards to one another's PDAs. Remember that? It took forever to set up the PDAs just right and to get the IR ports to send the information correctly. Frankly, it embarrassed everyone who had to watch and wait during business meetings, where it would have taken all of two seconds just to hand over a paper card and shake someone's hand.

These experiences inform the way you should think about Zuning. How should you Zune? Do you try to make face-to-face contact first? Or do you Zune anonymously, facelessly putting your music out into the wild? Setting aside the question of whether there are even any other Zune users within Wi-Fi radius, is it OK to interrupt other people's listening and offer them music? And where exactly is it OK to share? Restaurants? Work? Public transit? The school cafeteria? What happens if a kid from the uncool table offers his music to kids at the cool table? It would take an army of Emily Posts to sort through all the awkwardness.

Newsweek: Microsoft has announced its new iPod competitor, Zune. It says that this device is all about building communities. Are you worried?

Steve Jobs: In a word, no. I've seen the demonstrations on the Internet about how you can find another person using a Zune and give them a song they can play three times. It takes forever. By the time you've gone through all that, the girl's got up and left! You're much better off to take one of your earbuds out and put it in her ear. Then you're connected with about two feet of headphone cable.

The Social Marketplace

Creating a social marketplace where people can share their musical experiences and opinions is a wonderful thing. It is not, however, even remotely unique or innovative. Amazon pioneered many social elements including star ratings, peer reviews, and recommendation lists. Many of these were picked up by the iTunes store and expanded upon with items like Celebrity Playlists. LiveJournal, too, has had social "now playing" and "mood" tags for years.

Figure 3

Figure 3: The Zune journal in the Marketplace software allows you to track music swaps and your want list.

Is the Zune Marketplace MySpace-like "journal" enough to bring the game up a viral notch? I suspect not. The journal tracks your music swaps, allows you to manage your want list, and may allow you to talk about your life, although that is still unclear at this time. It doesn't seem to add any features for which you'd run out and buy a player, which is what it should do to promote the Zune.

The Zune Marketplace brings one feature to the table that iTunes, Amazon, and LiveJournal do not. It's the $15 per month all-you-can-eat Zune Pass unlimited-music subscription. At first glance, it merely looks like a warmed-over version of Napster. That's until you remember the sharing model offered with the player. Anyone who owns a Zune and subscribes to the service can act as a middleman between this enormous music library and anyone who wants to listen to that music--or at least, to listen to that music three times over three days.

Of course, with iTunes streaming, you can accomplish something similar as long as you don't want to listen to that music on your iPod. And, for the $180 per year that you'd have to pay Microsoft, you can buy a lot of albums at the iTunes store or your local Tower Records (if it stays in business) that will remain yours even after that year is over and you stop paying your subscription fees.

Final Thoughts

In their current incarnations, the Zune player and Zune Marketplace store don't seem to be living up to their goal of promoting a new kind of social music player, if such a beast could even be said to exist. The technology seems to lack the ability to create a viral layer to music listening, let alone the willingness to allow the viral message to spread without forcing its carriers to pay fees. Microsoft needs to think more about that rapidly text-messaging teenager listening to her iPod when developing the next model of its Zune player if it wants to stay in the social realm instead of becoming another iPod-clone-also-ran. To stay in this market, the all-you-can-eat music model needs to be priced affordably and the sharing model needs to be completely rethought.

Erica Sadun has written, co-written, and contributed to almost two dozen books about technology, particularly in the areas of programming, digital video, and digital photography.

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