Update and correction: based on information I received from Microsoft, I mistakenly credited the wrong blog with breaking this news--it was actually first posted by Zunerama. Microsoft has since put out a press release confirming many of the details, including the specific radio metadata formats that are supported by the "Buy from FM" feature.I'd been briefed on the upcoming Zune update and was supposed to hold my fire until next week, but somebody at Fry's Electronics posted details online, and the bloggers at fan site Zunerama passed them along to the public, although the site is missing a couple details that are still secret until next week.
Like I said last week, the hardware changes--blue, 120GB--are the least interesting part of the announcement. The biggest new feature is something I've been hoping Microsoft would do with the Zune ever since it launched two years ago: wireless connectivity to the Zune Marketplace from any public Wi-Fi hotspot. With a subscription Zune Pass--$14.99 per month--this means you can now listen to any of the three-million plus songs in the marketplace on-demand from a huge variety of locations.
Apple has (so far) held off on an iTunes subscription. I thought this was a huge feature gap that Microsoft, with its endless budget and seeming commitment to take on the iPod at all costs, should have filled a long time ago, but didn't. In the meantime, a couple other players got the jump on this so-called "celestial jukebox" scenario--Sandisk's Sansa Connect and Haier's Ibiza Rhapsody. Apple added the Wi-Fi version of iTunes last year, but it's download-only, so doesn't have the same appeal to instant gratification.
When I first asked the Zune team about this feature in 2006, they said it would be too "geeky" and hard to explain to non-techncial consumers, and that the user-experience would be less than optimal. The big problem was a lack of integrated browser and touchscreen, meaning that users encountering a Wi-Fi hotspot that required a browser-based log-in would get no response. Apple's iPhone addressed this problem by integrating Safari and a touch screen, giving users the same experience they get on a mobile Mac today.
With the upcoming Zune 3.0 software, Microsoft has come up with what it feels is a workable solution that doesn't require a touch screen. If a hotspot is password-protected but requires no browser, users will be able to scroll quickly through numbers and letters with the Zune Pad. (The on-screen interface looks similar to the function on the iPhone Calendar used to select times of day.) If the log-on requires a browser, however, Zuners are still out of luck.
There's a lot of other interesting stuff planned that the iPod/iPhone lacks today, such as a "tag from FM" feature--if you're listening to an FM station on your Zune that transmits song information via RDS or RT+, you can tag that song for purchase, and the next time you're in a hotspot, find it immediately on the Marketplace. There are also integrated "channels" that rotate through songs in particular genres, or that the Zune software imagines you might like based on your listening habits. As with the buy-over-Wi-Fi feature, these features are best used with a Zune Pass.
So why the leak? I wonder if Fry's was concerned that Apple's planned announcement tomorrow would be the introduction of an iTunes subscription store, which would have preempted the Zune announcement and made it much less interesting or surprising.