Spoutin' Off: Zune sings enticing tune but Wi-Fi hook is tame

By Michael Rau

September 18 2006


If you're wondering why I'm not offering a review here of Norfolk's new Apple Store in MacArthur Center, I'll tell you why shortly.

Instead, rather than moving on to a different topic this week, I decided that developments in the items discussed in our last column dictate that we do some updating.

We were mulling over the announcement about Microsoft's new online music service, and the device that they believe will challenge the dominance of Apple's iPod and iTunes Music Store. Well, they just took the wraps off their new device, called "Zune", and frankly there are no surprises.

Based on announced specifications, the new device is targeting the video iPod, with a similar form factor, storage capacity and pricing. As we previously reported, the device will be manufactured by Toshiba.

According to reports, Microsoft has already negotiated relationships with many of the same manufacturers that already produce accessories for the iPod, such as speaker/interface manufacturer Altec Lansing, and tech accessory giant Belkin, to produce similar accoutrements for the Zune.

Microsofties are touting the Zune's Wi-Fi capabilities as the feature that will challenge the iPod's domination in digital music players, but I'm not so sure.

Ostensibly, Zune users will, within the range of their Wi-Fi transceivers, be able to share multimedia. But sharing in this context is a suspect term.

It doesn't mean that one user would be able to download the file from another user via the wireless connection. In fact, such file sharing is specifically disallowed.

What it means is that if one user plays a song or video file, the other user will be able to consume it simultaneously - within range of the Wi-Fi connection.

Maybe I'm just cynical, but who cares?

How many of us have been listening to a song or watching a video podcast and felt compelled to have the person standing next to us share the experience?

It's a novel feature and maybe someone will find it appealing, but I can't imagine this particular feature being so popular as to, in itself, motivate consumers to choose the Zune over the iPod.

Anyway, the Zune should be available in time for the holiday season. The original announced retail price was $299, but recently, Microsoft has been hedging a bit on that projection.

Also, music downloads will be available at that time, but video downloads won't be until sometime in the first quarter of 2007.

Speaking of the iPod and iTunes, there were some substantive announcements from Apple this week as well.

First off, they announced that consumers will now be able to download full-resolution movies through the iTunes music store.

Movie downloads aren't groundbreaking - other services have sprung up in the last year or so- but the mass appeal of the iTunes Store may serve as an impetus to make such purchases more common.

With this service, you'll be able to download a movie to your computer. Then you'll be able to watch it there, or, if you have a video connection between your computer and your TV, watch it on your TV.

For those who've heard of video downloads from iTunes but never really checked it out, they might be thinking that the iTunes store has been offering video downloads for some time, and they'd be right. But those were videos, TV shows, and movies encoded for iPods (320 by 240 pixel resolution), and when blown up to TV size, looked pretty bad.

The downloads now offered are full-resolution, just like a DVD, but with the same type of sharing restrictions and obstacles found on other media downloaded from the iTunes store.

Current movie releases cost $14.99, while older so-called "library" titles are $9.99, but so far, only include films from the Disney catalog.

Personally, I'll stick to DVDs.

To take advantage of this service, you'll need to download the new version 7 of iTunes from Apple.

As for iPods, Apple has upgraded both the Nano and the Shuffle.

The Nano is now slightly smaller and has more capacity, while the Shuffle has gotten much smaller, and now sports an integrated clip so you can attach it to a pocket or belt or whatever.

Now, following the grand opening of the Apple Store in Norfolk, I have to make a confession.

I've never been to an Apple Store.

The reason is simple: I hate shopping malls.

Having said that, I should also point out that, while I'm obviously an aficionado of OS X, I'm not really such a fan of Apple in general that I'd race out for the experience of a grand opening.

Fortunately, I know enough folks who do fall into that category that I've been able to learn anecdotally that the new store is everything you've heard about in other localities and would hope for here.

I'm curious enough that I'm sure I'll go sooner or later, but in the meantime, if you've gone, drop me a note and share your impressions.


Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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