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Originally published September 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 18, 2006 at 4:00 PM

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Brier Dudley

Zune sends a message to Apple

Like a high-tech fortune cookie, Microsoft's new Zune media player has a hidden message. In tiny letters on the back of the case, it says...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Like a high-tech fortune cookie, Microsoft's new Zune media player has a hidden message.

In tiny letters on the back of the case, it says, "Hello from Seattle."

How you interpret that message will depend on what you think of Microsoft's bold assault on a digital-music business dominated by Apple Computer.

I think the message is mostly for Apple boss Steve Jobs, who finally has some serious competition.

Fans of the iPod around here may think it's a little presumptuous to position the Zune as Seattle's media player, but at least Microsoft is finally acknowledging the local character that goes into its products.

After getting my hands on the Zune Thursday, I think it's going to be a hit, and I'm not just rooting for the home team.

Zune has cool new features that make the iPod seem a little dated and cumbersome — mainly the way the Zune syncs up wirelessly with other Zunes and a computer music collection. The iPod still needs a cable to load music from a host computer. If you're in a coffee shop with other Zune users, you can wirelessly send them your photos, favorite songs or playlist. When they get home, the device automatically adds the photos and music to the collection on their computer. They can listen to the songs three times and decide whether to buy them from the Zune store (or borrow your CD and make their own copy).

You can also turn the sharing feature off if a creepy guy on the bus is trying to send you Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy."

Zune still locks down music in a way that will please record companies more than consumers, but the copy protection scheme feels more like a leash than the cage used by Apple.

But the biggest advantage Zune has may be its position relative to the iPod. The iPod has been a huge success. It's a great product, and it brought digital music to the mainstream, but it's at risk of no longer being the cool new thing.

That hidden message about Seattle speaks to trend-setting young hipsters. They still think of Seattle as a place for cool alternative music, and they may want a different media player than the iPod used by their parents.

Apple exacerbated this generation gap when it announced its holiday 2006 lineup Tuesday. No dramatically new products were released, only modest upgrades of existing models, which can now download Disney movies.

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Apple also sells reruns of network TV shows to iPod users, but Zune is going after a different market for now. Microsoft wants the YouTube and MySpace crowd, the kids more interested in sharing funny homebrew video clips than catching up on "Lost."

The cheeky hidden message won't amuse Microsoft investors. They'd rather see Microsoft finish Windows Vista and start printing money again, instead of pouring it into a risky new venture that will take years to become profitable.

But Zune may do more for Microsoft than make money.

It's also a message to employees who wonder if their company has become too slow and too bureaucratic to get things right, and too cautious for a good fight.

"I think Xbox and Zune are great bellwethers for people to look at to say, if I have a dream and I have a plan to take an industry to the next level, I can do it here," said Microsoft Vice President J. Allard, a co-founder of the Xbox business, a music fan who owns nine iPods and is leader of the Zune project.

That's all assuming, of course, that Zune works as promised, ships on time and doesn't have any major bugs.

Brier Dudley's column usually appears Mondays in Business/Technology.

Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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