What happened to the music?

So, the Zune HD came out recently.  I’ve been keeping a close eye on it, because ever since it was announced, it seemed like an intriguing product – or at least more interesting that then previous Zunes.

I have to admit that I haven’t had an opportunity to use the Zune HD yet – I’ve only seen video demos and read reviews.  And the impression I get is that this is a very 1.0 product.  It’s rough around the edges (like the web browser) and the decision to display ads for twenty or so seconds before an app starts is boneheaded, stupid, ignorant and other unpleasant adjectives.

Still, there are a couple of things I like about the Zune HD, which essentially shift the focus back to music.  And this is something that seems to be brushed past in everything I’ve seen.

The biggest complaint I see against the Zune HD is lack of apps.  To quote David Pogue:

Of course, there’s an elephant in this particular room, and it’s called the iTunes App Store. At this point, those 75,000 free or cheap add-on programs, which you can download directly to the Touch, are a juicy attraction indeed.

Oh, the Zune has an app store, all right. As of today, there are exactly nine programs in the Zune App Store. Not 9,000 or 900 — nine. A calculator. Weather. A Space Invaders game. Woo-hoo.

iPod.  Zune.  What are these things?  Music players.  But what happened to the iPod?  The latest touch was advertised as a game console.  The latest nano was advertised as a Flip-like camcorder.  But what about the music?

Apple seems to think they’ve done everything that’s necessary with music.  But if there’s one thing this Zune does, it’s that it proves them wrong.  Based on what I’ve seen from both the player, and the software, the experience of playing your music is enhanced.  The first, and arguably the less important, are some very impressive visuals when playing music.  Album art, exclusive artwork, etc gives a nice presentation to your music.  I say it’s the lesser because it requires you to stare at the player to appreciate.  And just like Apple’s new LP feature, it’s questionable how much people actually do that.  After all, it’s about the music, not what’s going on with the player.  Still, it’s a nice touch that enriches the experience.

The second is the Zune pass.  There is nothing like this in iTunes.  For $15 a month, you can listen to as much music as you want.  Big deal, right?  After all, a common complaint of this is that once you stop paying, any music you haven’t purchased goes away.

But that’s not why you subscribe to this thing.  No, the reason you subscribe is to discover new music.  To listen to a new artist or a new album as much as you want before you decide whether you want to commit to it or venture further.  Suddenly, a feature like Apple’s Genius becomes so much more interesting and valuable.  Sure, sometimes it can be nice to rediscover your own music, or listen to playlists that seem nicely constructed.  But there’s nothing like discovering a new artist that you’ve never heard of, and fall in love.

But this is ignored.  No one seems to care.  This is the entirety of Pogue’s mention of Zune Pass:

Music is still at the Zune’s heart, especially if you sign up for Microsoft’s $15-a-month, all-you-can-download music-store plan. Now, you could argue that those subscriptions are something of a ripoff; the day you stop paying that monthly fee, you lose your entire music collection.

The Zune Pass, though, eases the sting: You get to keep 10 songs a month forever (90 percent of Microsoft’s songs are not copy-protected). Better yet, you can listen to your infinite playlist by logging into Zune.net from any Mac or PC, anywhere you go. If you listen to a lot of music, this deal is becoming irresistible.

In comparison, he spends twice as much space complaining about the lack of apps.

Okay, so, let me make one thing clear: apps are awesome.  I own an iPhone, and the app store is what makes an always-connected device even more connected, and even more important.  For an iPod touch, Apple is right that the games are the most important type of app for this device.  Other apps, most of which utilize a network connection, are nice but not as important, as the iPod touch isn’t always connected.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make.  Yes, apps are great.  Yes, Apple’s app store has redefined the functionality we expect from our connected devices.  But iPods and Zunes are about MUSIC.  And I see more value and innovation on that front from Zune than the iPod.

What happened?  The iPod reinvented our love of music.  Now we’re supposed to shoot video instead?

I’m not sure if the Zune HD is a killer device, but it’s a step in a direction that Apple hasn’t taken, and I look forward to what might be coming in future.  Microsoft could most definitely mess this up, and it might even be expected.  But I needed to make note of what impressed me, and I hope Apple is paying attention.

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