The New Zunes

Here’s what Microsoft is announcing tonight at midnight — and which, in fact, they revealed to some members of the press today in Redmond, but, oddly, under a news embargo:

  • An 80 GB hard drive-based model, black-only, for $249. The display is 3.2 inches diagonally.
  • 4 and 8 GB flash memory Zunes, in pink, red, green, and black, for $149 and $199.
  • All three Zunes sport a navigation button called the “Zune Pad”. No word yet on how the Zune Pad is different than the original Zune’s controller.

The new Zunes use Wi-Fi not just for squirting songs to other Zunes, but also for wireless synching of music, movies, and photos to your PC. ZuneScene has what are apparently photos of the new Zunes. They look pretty much like what you’d expect. (So long, brown.)

So, compared to the iPod, the prices are the same, GB for GB, but the Zunes have larger screens and can sync over Wi-Fi. But there’s nothing to compete with either of the two flagship iPods: the 160 GB Classic or the fancy new Touch. Wi-Fi synching is cool, in concept, but the devil is in the details — Wi-Fi song-sharing between devices is a cool idea, too, and we all know how well that feature worked out for Microsoft last year.

Silicon Alley Insider is reporting that the Zune Marketplace will begin offering some DRM-free tracks, but no word yet on whether they’ll remain DRM-free when squirted.

Hardware- and price-wise, I don’t see anything that pushes hard against the iPod — and it’s hard not to think that these are more or less exactly what Apple expected the new Zunes to be. If Wi-Fi synching is their only software differentiation, I don’t think the new Zunes are going to be any more of a big deal than the original, other than the fact that they now have competitors to the Nanos — good enough for second-place, but nothing for Apple to worry about. If the new Zunes support DRM-free Zune-to-Zune sharing, on the other hand, that would be something.

I wonder what Microsoft’s expectations are. If they’re proud, and if they expect these new Zunes to make a big splash, why not introduce them at a live Apple-style event? If you want to compete with the iPod, you’ve got to compete on all fronts, including press coverage.

And, lastly, no word yet on whether the new Zunes work on Macs. I presume the answer is no, but, seriously, why not? Look at these much-publicized photographs of a lecture hall taken earlier this year at the Missouri School of Journalism. In the past, notoriously, Microsoft has made new products Windows-only as a competitive bludgeon, but in the case of the Zune, who is hurt by keeping them Windows-only? Just Microsoft. Apple can sell iPods to anyone using a Mac or Windows; Microsoft can sell Zunes only to Windows users.

Update

Well, we have an answer regarding DRM for squirted tracks. From Jeff Leeds’s report for The New York Times (which, notably, describes the Zune in the first paragraph as “slow-selling”):

Microsoft also said the library of songs available on its digital music service would soon include more than one million tracks without copy-protection software, known in the music industry as digital rights management or D.R.M. But the company noted that even songs without copy protection would still be playable only three times when they have been passed from another Zune user.

I.e. DRM-free songs, including those you ripped yourself, will be wrapped with DRM when shared.

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