Wave? Makes me think Jobim…
Wave? Makes me think Jobim…
The term “HD” is often more about marketing than it is about accurately describing a product’s capabilities. Microsoft’s upcoming Zune HD is the latest example of that trend. The Zune HD looks like it will delivera compelling evolution over the previous-generation Zunes, with features including a touch-screen interface and a widescreen 480-by-272 OLED display. But while it will also offer HD video output and HD radio reception, it will fall short in delivering genuine HD playback.
The Zune’s OLED display is a 480-by-272 widescreen, which doesn’t meet anybody’s definition of HD. It’s only when you use a premium HDMI A/V docking station to output video to an HDTV that you get high definition–720p, to be exact.
That’s as far as its HD support goes. High definition video requires a minimum of 720-pixel resolution, and high definition audio is 24-bit; the Zune HD’s built-in playback falls short on both counts. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company does not have any details to share regarding audio tracks or specific video files.
Microsoft is not alone in its marketing practices. “My daughter’s Sony VAIO has a sticker that says ‘Full HD’ [which suggests 1080p]. But the screen resolution is 1280 x 800. The “Full HD” comes from connecting the computer by HDMI to a monitor or TV,” said Joe Wilcox, an independent technology analyst.
While OLED screens deliver sharp colors and deep blacks–one benedit of HD–those advantages are almost entirely lost on a small screen with low resolution. And video marketplaces sometimes decrease the size of downloads by limiting black levels and other palette-related settings, said Matt Hargett, a noted technology author.
Microsoft could compensate for the Zune’s lack of HD video playback with 24-bit audio, Hargett said. Microsoft obtained the rights to the HDCD format in 2000. “Having 24-bit audio would be a great step forward.”
CDs introduced 16-bit lossless audio almost 30 years ago; High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD), a 24-bit audio format, is 20 years old; and DTS (Digital Theater System), a format used in DVDs and other media, has provided 24-bit lossy audio for over 15 years.
Despite these decades-older technologies, the Zune HD device and marketplace doesn’t appear capable to deliver a better audio experience.
“By adding the “HD” to the name, [Microsoft] is trying to secure a market who appreciates the details, but that same market will likely reject the product if it doesn’t deliver a real HD experience beyond the “HD Radio”, which isn’t really HD at all,” said Hargett. HD Radio’s quality “is below what CDs, Apple Lossless, and FLAC downloads already deliver consumers for years. Does that really count as HD? I don’t think so,” Hargett quipped.
As if two rumored Microsoft handhelds weren’t enough, the latest chatter from Redmond holds that the company is designing a new “digital entertainment handheld” to take on Apple’s iPod Touch and Sony’s PSP.
The news comes from Team Xbox’s César A. Berardini, who says he waited months to corroborate and clear his report with sources in Redmond and Santa Clara. One source referred to the device as “xYz,” alluding to a hybrid of the Xbox and Zune, but said the actual name hadn’t been decided on, to the source’s knowledge.
Before we go any further, let’s get all the Microsoft handheld device rumors out on the table. We know that Microsoft is working on a Zune HD, complete with a touch screen and due in the fall. There’s also talk of an iPhone rival, codenamed “Pink,” that involves collaboration with Verizon. This third device seems to fit in the former category simply because it’s entertainment-related, but Berardini writes that newly reported Pink specs “coincide with the scoop I got.” This suggests in a roundabout way that Pink and this gaming device are one and the same.
Except for one thing: One source said the device doesn’t have and “doesn’t need” access to a phone network. Berardini was also explicitly told that the device is not a “Zune Phone.” He speculates that the device will include WiMax, but who knows.
As for other hardware, the “xYz” reportedly has a WVGA touch screen and “features not found on any handheld on the market,” one source says, but the real kicker is in the software. The story says this device will blur the lines between the Zune, Xbox Live and the “Sky” market — supposedly the code name for a cloud-based mobile App store that Microsoft also hasn’t announced yet. It’ll also apparently compete with Google by integrating Live Search services.
Also interesting is the idea of content that’s transferable between each device, including video games. That’s where I get excited.
There’s obviously a technical disparity between handhelds and home consoles, but the simpler games found on Xbox Live Arcade — Braid and Marble Blast Ultra, for example, or classic ports such as Doom and Sonic the Hedgehog — could easily coexist on both platforms. That idea hasn’t been done since the Sega Nomad, a portable Genesis console that was ahead of its time.
The article gives off a vibe that this is all part of a carefully-planned strategy to pull several of Microsoft’s entertainment services under one umbrella. As an Xbox 360 owner, I see the potential in adding a handheld to the mix, but as always, execution is crucial. So now, we wait and see.
(Oh, and before you get too up in arms, please know that the image above is pure fakery.)
I feel really sorry for the companies, such as Real (with its Rhapsody service), Best Buy (with Napster), and Microsoft (with Zune Pass) that sell subscription music services. Rationally, subscription music makes perfect sense: You pay one monthly rate and get access to the service’s entire library. You can gorge all you want, and if you download an album that turns out not to tickle your fancy, you’ve only wasted a little time.
But none of these services have caught on with the American public on an emotional level–certainly not enough to make them into viable threats to the dominance of Apple’s iPod and iTunes. Apple’s sold billions of songs through iTunes, even though the price of a single album can be the same as other services’ monthly all-you-can-eat flat fee. Every time a consumer downloads a song, it’s a vote in favor of owning music rather than renting it.
Every once in awhile, an Apple competitor tries to make subscriptions sound sexy–or at least smart–via advertising. The latest example is this new Microsoft ad for Zune Pass:
Of course, as Ars Technica notes, Wes Moss–who’s a real guy–does blithely ignore the crucial distinction between digital music’s subscription and buy-to-own variants. Stop paying Microsoft your $14.99 a month, and all your music goes away, but the 99 cents you blow on an iTunes track makes it yours to keep. On the other hand, Moss also doesn’t mention a notable virtue of Zune Pass: the monthly fee lets you keep ten songs. So at least he’s glossing over important facts in a balanced fashion.
An odder thing about the ad: While it shows an iPod, It doesn’t even mention the Zune explicitly. Unless you’re paying reasonably close attention to the digital music wars, it might be unclear to you that what Microsoft is suggesting is that you go out and buy a hardware device called a Zune. I’m not sure if this is intentional on the company’s part–it may be sick of people making fun of its poor little audio player–or what.
Despite everything, Microsoft has a point here: Anyone who’s considering buying a music player should at least consider whether buying one that supports subscriptions is a smarter move than springing for an iPod. (I suspect I’m in the same camp as a lotta folks, though–I’d switch from buying music to subscribing it in a heartbeat…if you could do so and still own an iPod or iPhone.)
I have my doubts, though, whether Microsoft’s subscription salesmanship will find much more success than that of this old Napster ad, which makes the same point in a radically different fashion, stylewise:
By Harry McCracken | Posted at 8:03 am on Thursday, April 16, 2009
Greetings to you from Malta…
By Harry McCracken | Posted at 8:20 am on Wednesday, April 15, 2009
My taxes? Filed. Whew! You?
Technologizer has learned that rumors surrounding the fourth third generation Zune model are indeed true, and Microsoft’s music player would be getting a high-definition upgrade sometime in the fall, most likely in September or October. Sources close to the Zune team indicate that Engadget’s shots of the marketing materials are indeed authentic, but are fairly tight lipped on exactly what the player may have.
What we do know is this: the size of the device is set to come in smaller than the iPod touch (although we believe in size, not in thickness). Capacities should be competitive with that of the iPod touch, and like the touch, it would sport a touchscreen interface. The old click wheel would be replaced with a single-button as the pictures show.
We’re still trying to source out more information on it, but we do know with a good deal of confidence that this information is correct — these sources have accurately called the launches and specs of two previous launches (see my stores at Betanews: here and here).
More as we get it…
New Details: We’re being told that the Engadget marketing materials are likely not the final art for any advertising. So while the device is real, this art is probably just a draft.
Update 2: We made a bit of a mistake. While generally every year since their launch there has been some type of revision, this is technically the third gen model, not the fourth.
If anything was evidence that Apple’s iPod is ready to be the de-facto digital music device, the latest survey of teens by financial research firm Piper Jaffray should be it. Of the 606 teens surveyed (54 percent male, 46 percent female), those planning to buy a player all responded they were considering Apple’s iconic device.
About one out of every five teens are planning to buy a new music player in the next 12 months, down from 34 percent in the fall survey. Of that group, 100% say an iPod.
For whatever reason, Zune’s share has collapsed — probably due to the fact the players have gone without any update for quite awhile. In the fall, 15 percent said they were considering a Zune. If this is true, Microsoft may find itself being forced out of the digital music player market as the youth is what drives this industry.
There really isn’t much untapped potential here either: 92 percent of teens own a player, up from 87 percent in the last survey. So even if this is exaggerated, the growth potential is slipping away for Microsoft — I’ve often heard them argue about the untapped market as its salvation.
I just can’t see with the increasing amount of negative data for Zune how it is worthwhile for the company to stay in the market. We are hearing that the wagons are circling in Redmond and talks are ongoing with partners on the next Zune model, which should come out in the fall if what we are hearing is correct.
However, will it even be worth it?
By David Worthington | Posted at 4:31 pm on Thursday, April 2, 2009
Despite a recent organizational shake up, help-wanted ads indicate that Microsoft may be taking its Zune brand into the living room, and expanding into new international markets.
Today, blogger Long Zheng’s watchful eye took notice of a job listing on Microsoft’s Web site seeking a software engineer to help its Zune team, “deliver great digital entertainment features into the living room, including on demand music and video.”
The job requires an engineer with experience developing user interfaces to deliver “rich online media experience delivering music and video from the cloud.”
The listing is dated just days after the company announced that it was restructuring the Zune product group into distinct software and hardware divisions. Microsoft’s goal may be to bring Zune services to third-party devices, CNET reported.
A separate job listing is seeking a database programmer to help Microsoft open Zune stories for other countries or regions.
The company has already made inroads into the living room with its Xbox console. Windows Media Center Edition has failed to make much of an impact. It would make sense for Microsoft to offer a Zune store through a future edition of the Xbox that would serve as a digital media hub. If nothing else, it would help the company compete in the living room with Apple TV, which analysts have projected could sell as many as 6 million units this year.
That could be true, if what we’re hearing about the buzz within Microsoft these days is correct. The Zune for all intents and purposes has been anything but a success for Microsoft. Redmond saw that Apple was wildly successful in controlling the experience from the top down, and decided to try to duplicate it.
In the process it all but abandoned its partners, casting PlaysForSure aside in favor of its own single store proprietary system a la Apple’s. The change all but meant certain death for just about every store that wasn’t either the Zune MarketPlace or iTunes, and most device manufacturers.
Fast forward to today. We’re now nearly three years out from Microsoft’s initial launch, and the company has very little to show for it. iPods still outsell Zunes by a 20-to-1 (or more) margin, roughly the same as it was at launch.
So what is Microsoft to do? According to our sources, the company is currently discussing marketing strategies going forward. But the most interesting aspect of this talk is that Redmond is apparently sharing information with key partners for the first time in the platform’s short history.
Ina Fried over at CNet has the scoop on the reorganization of the Zune team, which would now be split into two groups. From her post, this is how it will go down:
The software and services portion of the Zune team–the bulk of its staff–will be added to the portfolio of Enrique Rodriguez, the vice president who currently runs Microsoft’s Mediaroom and Media Center TV businesses. The hardware team, meanwhile, will now report to Tom Gibbons, who also leads the hardware design efforts within Microsoft’s Windows Mobile unit.
Clearly, the positioning of the team provides a lot of clues as to the future of Zune. It’s not going to be in the player itself, and this is probably a smart move. Zune has not taken off, and is well behind even other Apple competitors in the space.
Microsoft is wise to leverage its strengths elsewhere — in this case the mobile and multimedia segments of the electronics industry — to generate some interest in Zune. Of course Rodriguez is not saying that the Zune player itself is no longer its focus, but lets not beat around the bush, the writing has been on the wall for some time.
Redmond needs Zune to be profitable, especially in economic conditions such as what we’re seeing these days. Investors have little tolerance for companies that aren’t making money, or wasting it on wild goose chases.
Whether the Microsofties like it or not, thats pretty much what the Zune effort has been up until now.
Zune phones are likely on their way, but don’t expect them to be produced by Microsoft, Mary-Jo Foley is reporting. Instead, Microsoft will be attempting reproduce the success of its PC business by providing devices makers with reference designs to use to build their own devices
In November, I wrote that rumors that Microsoft was planning to announce a Microsoft-branded, enterainment-centric phone at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona were plausible. My rationale was that its acquisition of Danger Inc. and positioning of executive talent into its Entertainment and Devices division was an indication that it had something up its sleeve. While I still refuse to rule out that Microsoft could release its own device, that “something” is probably far less ambitious than I originally conceived.
Foley wrote that Microsoft wants to create a ‘best of breed’ Zune device by pitting smartphone makers against one another. She also reports that Microsoft’s upcomoming Zune-branded services, code-named “Pink,” “Skybox,” and “SkyMart,” will be its contribution to the user experience.
That is a better fit with Microsoft’s existing business model. It acquired the underpinning for its Zune services from Danger, and needs to provide strong Zune-branded services to have any hopes of all at competing with Apple’s iPhone juggernaut. I expect to see the fittest of Microsoft partners showcasing their Zune offerings in the near future.
Over at CNet, Greg Sandoval has a good story up on subscription music services such as the one that Microsoft offers for its Zune devices. They were supposed to be a big deal, but the idea never spawned any breakout hits. Yahoo and others exited the business, Rhapsody and Napster are niche successes at best, and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Microsoft say bye-bye to it at some point as well. Meanwhile, Apple has sold billions of non-subscription, buy-it-and-own-it song downloads. Yet Greg’s story says that Microsoft and the music industry are still insisting that subscribing to music is a model that makes sense.
Rationally, subscription music seems like it makes sense: It lets you spend $15 to get access to unlimited music, versus spending the same amount or thereabouts to buy one album. But consumers are simply nowhere near as interested as the industry thinks they should be. Greg mentions one factor in his story: The fact that people appear to want to own their music rather than renting it. I think another big factor is copy protection. It’s neatly mandatory for subscription music (eMusic is the only subscription service that doesn’t lock up its tracks). And even if you can live with the notion of DRM, the technologies that have been used to shackle subscription music have proven to be particularly flaky. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Windows Media.)
Another factor: Subscription music is difficult to explain. Especially the part about it going away if you stop subscribing. Buying music is a notion that we all get.
I still know smart people–including some journalists–who think subscription music will catch on eventually. Maybe it will. Right now, though, I think that its ongoing failure is proof that it doesn’t matter how theoretically logical an idea is if it fails to capture the imagination of consumers.
Posted by Harry McCracken at 1:10 pm30 Comments
Microsoft was quick to tamp down any rumor-mongering in the blogosphere about its 54% drop in Zune revenues, cautioning that the industry as a whole was down, and that its sales were in line with its expectations. In comments to Seattle P-I’s Joseph Tartakoff, Entertainment and Devices chief Robbie Bach repeatedly assured that the sales of the device were “fine.” Zune marketing chief Adam Sohn furthered Bach’s comments by adding that Zune’s limited distribution (US and Canada only) gave it little room for error — iPod is sold worldwide, thus the weakness here at home was offset by some strength abroad, and a lineup change also cannabalized sales.
What we’re still missing here Microsoft is hard numbers, so we can see exactly what your definition of “fine” really is.
Posted by Ed Oswald at 10:51 pm4 Comments
Podcasting News’s Elisabeth Lewin notes an interesting tidbit in Microsoft’s Form 10-Q SEC filing: Microsoft says that its Zune-related revenue “decreased by $100 or 54% reflecting a decrease in device sales.”
The 10-Q doesn’t seem to say how many Zunes Microsoft sold, and the company has slashed prices. So it’s a little tough to tell whether the plummeting revenue stems from consumers not buying Zunes or from them buying cheaper Zunes. As a frame of reference, Apple reported earlier this week that it sold three percent more iPods in the last quarter than it did a year ago, but made 16 percent less dough doing so.
No matter how you slice it, you can’t turn Microsoft’s Zune revenue number into evidence that the company is making any real inroads on the iPod hegemony. In an era of Microsoft layoffs, cutbacks, and other tough decisions, does that mean that Zune is toast? Tough to say. If you consider Zune to be an MP3 player, it appears to be a disappointing seller that’s in decline, and doing away with it might make sense. But I’m assuming that Microsoft sees Zune as a platform–involving devices, services, and software–and that there’s a good chance it sees it as being strategic enough that’ll continue to invest.
Even so, the Zune name feels permanently tarnished. Suggestion: Microsoft has another entertainment-related brand that’s thriving and which overlaps increasingly with the Zune’s domain. That would be Xbox. Might it be time to retire the Zune name and roll the platform into the Xbox universe?
Well, that’s a relief: The beyond-weird worldwide outage of 30GB Microsoft Zune MP3 players has been diagnosed. Microsoft says it’s due to a faulty driver for an unspecified Zune component that doesn’t know how to deal properly with leap years…and that the glitch will resolve itself tomorrow as the new year rolls in. It’ll deploy a fix before the next leap year in 2012 (way, way before, I hope).
I’m not sure what the sentiment is among Zune owners at large, but before the reason for the failure became apparent, Technologizer community member Josh Rose told me “I was initially worried this morning when I saw my device until I noticed everyone else has been having the same problem. As the day has progressed, my mood has been going towards amused as the full scale of the problem grows ever larger. I should point out, I love my Zune. I’m a huge Zune supporter.”
If I were a Zune owner I’d probably be most annoyed over any time I’d wasted trying to troubleshoot my player before learning of the vast number of Zune owners who were affected. Microsoft hasn’t said anything about giving affected customers anything other than thanks for their patience, but wouldn’t it be smart if it through them something–a few free songs or a complimentary month of the Zune Pass music service, maybe–by way of apology?