November 14, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Microsoft sees Zune as just opening act
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Microsoft's $250 music player, which goes on sale Tuesday, is the first music player to come directly from the software maker, but it's the latest in Redmond's years-long effort to counter Apple's dominance. After years of battling Apple Computer through an array of partners, Redmond is now taking on Cupertino directly.
"The whole goal behind launch was to build a foundation," said Scott Erickson, a senior director of product management for Microsoft's Zune effort. Erickson would not say how many devices the company expects to sell this holiday season, but said it has planned to produce enough models that those who want a Zune should be able to get their hands on one.
IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian said Microsoft has created a nice-looking music player, but the first effort doesn't take full advantage of the device's built-in wireless connection or its large color screen.
"In the first generation, Zune is all dressed up with no place to go," Kevorkian said. Among the key missing ingredients, she said, are the ability to buy songs on the go and to buy videos at all.
Microsoft, meanwhile, appears to have made a conscious choice to keep it simple. The company has started with a single device, selling only in the U.S. While erstwhile partners such as iRiver and Creative Labs had devices that could act as audio recorders, game players and even digital video recorders, the Zune lacks the ability to do some basics, such as acting as a hard drive.
Video: Zune zooms into CNET
Editor James Kim got a chance to try out the music player before it hit shelves.
Even a feature as basic as the disk mode, though, adds complexity, Microsoft said. For example, users sometimes get confused between songs that can be played versus those that are transferred to a player only as a file in disk mode. By making the Zune software the only way to move items onto a Zune, Microsoft hopes to eliminate any confusion.
And although Microsoft is starting with a small feature list, Erickson said the company will be able to make additions fairly quickly through software updates. First on that list is compatibility with Windows Vista.
Erickson said that probably won't happen before Vista is made available to large businesses at the end of the month, but should happen well before the software goes on sale to consumers at the end of January.
Also on the nearer-term horizon are support for podcasts, as well as a means to more easily get videos onto the device. Some of the other additions to Zune will take longer, such as new ways of using the Wi-Fi connection built into the device.