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Microsoft’s Zune: Is This Any Way to Promote a New Product?

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but rather quietly, I thought, Microsoft has taken the wraps, such as they were, off its latest “iPod Killer,” the Zune player.

You would think, after all these years of struggling to gain some traction in the music download and player marketplace, Microsoft would make a big deal of this event, but it seemed as if the press conference was almost an afterthought. Little about this device, actually being assembled by Toshiba, is terribly surprising, since details of the major features, such as Wi-Fi, have been published already.

Now when Apple has a new product to offer, they make a huge splash. The press gets a specially-crafted invitation, with appropriate hints to drive the rumor sites into heated speculation. The Web site is quickly updated to reflect the introduction as soon as the media session is over.

So what did Microsoft do with its site after talking about Zune?

Nothing, not a thing. The home page at microsoft.com didn’t even make a big deal about the forthcoming Windows Vista operating system. Instead they were concentrating on a mobil phone being marketed by singular. All right, maybe their servers were virus-laden and they couldn’t do the updates. No, I’m not reporting a fact; I’m just being facetious.

Next, I searched the site using the keyword “Zune.”

“Did you mean: zone,” the response indicated?

The first entry in the search screen was a link to a Microsoft analyst meeting in which Zune was discussed. Over the two pages in the search results screen, there was nothing about the official product unveiling, not a thing!

Now, I suppose that’ll probably be remedied by the time you read this article, but that’s not the point. It’s clear to me that Microsoft’s “ditch your iPod” campaign has already misfired.

Worse, it’s not at all certain when this misbegotten product will be out, except some time before the holiday season is in full swing. Even the price wasn’t disclosed, although, with a 30GB capacity, the Zune is going to have to be competitive with the entry-level standard iPod at $249.

As to the Zune player itself, I haven’t seen the interface in action. But everything Microsoft says so far seems to indicate they are making the same mistake as all the failed iPod killers that preceded their product. Rather than compete on snazzy looks and world-class usability, they are striving to pack on the features. I suppose they hope you won’t notice as you struggle with the built-in Wi-Fi, the FM tuner, and you wonder why your battery life sucks.

No, Microsoft hasn’t disclosed what battery life is going to be, although I suspect the wireless capability will be switchable, so it’s not there all the time draining battery life at full tilt. At least I hope they understand that the network of Zune-addicts they hope to establish is going to be mighty upset if their players require a recharge after just a few hours of use.

As to that wireless capability, it’s designed to allow you to share your tracks with friends and family. That sounds fine, and it’s a little reminiscent of your ability to share your iTunes library over a network from your Mac or PC. However, an extremely odious DRM is in place, so if you happen to “borrow” a track from a friend, you can only play it three times in three days, after which you’ll have to buy your own copy to make it active again.

Now while this may make sense from an anti-piracy point of view, what happens if you take the files from a member of your own family. Do they expect you to still buy that song twice so two Zunes can play it whenever they want?

Microsoft claims to be in this for the long haul, and this is but the first product. You’d expect, that if they wanted to really make traction against Apple, they do so with a splash and not a splatter.

Oh yes, the rumors that Microsoft was apparently planning to buy your iTunes music so it could be transferred to Zune are not going to come to pass.

As far as I’m concerned, there may be a better music player out there, somewhere, one that’ll truly offer the right combination of state-of-the-arts appeal and a wonderful, seamless music download experience that’ll give Apple a real run for its money.

But it won’t come from Microsoft.