Welcome to The New-And-Improved Social
One of the best functions of the Zune is that it lends itself to music discovery in several ways. The sharing feature that the Zune launched with is the most well-known and oft-ridiculed method. Microsoft has come out with several iterations of the Zune firmware since then and what most people don't realize is that the social aspects of the Zune have been upgraded significantly. In fact, many of the complaints I've seen about the Zune center around the fact that it doesn't perform functions that it actually can perform. Without owning a device, however, its pretty difficult to understand all of the nuances of the Zune.
The Zune device has always had a menu option for wireless sharing. Originally that option was limited at best. It was the right idea but three days was too limited to serve any real value. Until the day comes that the Zune is everywhere the feature will always struggle to find acceptance. Its OK though because there are better ways to share music with your friends. Much better ways, actually. In fact if you have a few friends in your social circle on the Zune it can change the experience quite a bit! So how does this whole social thing actually work? Glad you asked!
The Zune firmware has a menu option called Social. Under that menu, you'll find the expected wireless sharing inbox and screen that lets you see nearby Zunes. You know - the screens that are usually blank. More importantly though for the music discovery and social aspect is the Social section called "friends". This is where the exciting parts of the social truly reside. This all starts back on the desktop though, so let's start there.
Everyone who signs up for the Social creates a Zune Card. This card allows you to show people what you've been listening too and how often you've listened to it. Its actually very comprehensive and really gives a complete picture of your music preferences all the way down to letting you list your favorite songs. As you can see from my Zune Card, I listen to a lot of anime O.S.T.'s. The doubters are probably still saying "So what?" but this is really only a small part of the overall Social. We have a Zune Card so now its time to head to the Social section of the Zune desktop software.
The desktop software gives you a very similar experience to what you see on the website which is very nice in its own right. This is where the music discovery really starts though. I'm going to use our own Adam Krebs as an example because he listens to a lot of music and I think he listens to a lot of things that I would never look at. After going to the social section on the desktop, I'm presented with a list of my friends' Zune Cards. Clicking on Adam's, I get to dig down into his music.
The first tab you start on is the "Recent" section. Here you'll get a list of Adam's 24 most recent plays. Assuming they're available in the marketplace (and Adam does seem to have quite a bit that's not actually), you can either listen to a sample, or as a Zune Pass member, I can simply play his track list. Anything that I like I can easily add to my own collection. Even better, if I want to see the rest of the album or even the artist, it takes nothing more than a right click and selecting "More about this album". You'll be taken right to the album and the other albums from that artist will all be available.
That's a pretty good start. The fun part about the recent plays section is that its pretty random. You don't really have any control over what appears there other than whatever you've been listening too. Maybe you want to highlight a few artists for your friends though. Easy enough! Right click on your favorite song and select "Mark as favorite". When I go to Adam's favorites, I see he's listed six songs there. From here you can play and add music just like you did in the recent plays section.
You're not done yet. No, there's one more section in the social to let you explore your friend's music. We all have our favorite songs but we also tend to have entire artists that get more listens than others. This isn't a section you have any control over. Like the recent plays, this section reflects your music habits. Adam's give me a choice of listening to some music from the Gorillaz and Kanye West among others. The section still functions like the other two and it allows me to play any of the music that's available in the Zune marketplace and check out more of what those artists have to offer.
Let's say I really like Adam's music preferences (I do actually...I've added songs from his lists pretty often!) and want to share that with my friends. Well, I can right click on his Zune card and select "Send this card" and send his card to any of my friends. I've never actually done this but I assume that if they want to add him the process is the same as the usual addition of a friend so Adam would have to approve it.
I hope that gives a better idea of how much you can do to really explore and share music with your friends using the social. Wireless sharing really only scratches the surface and much less important aspect of the overall experience. You what's pretty cool about all of this though? This is only half of it. Right click on Adam's profile and select "Sync with Zune".
Remember the Social section on the Zune with the wireless sharing abilities? There's one more section in the social now. Its the same "Friends" section that is on the desktop. There's a few notable differences when you're actually using the Zune. Your Zune will not contain all of your friends unless you ask it to. I did select to sync Adam's profile to my Zune so his profile is under my Friends section. All of the familiar sections from the desktop are listed under his Zune profile on my Zune - Recent, Favorites, and Top Artists.
The only major difference in content that the Zune presents you with is that you only get 6 songs under each category rather than 24. This is to save space since you can quickly start to add up the storage needed when you start adding a lot of friends. The functionality on your Zune player is the same as on the desktop for the most part. There are a few though so I'll focus on the functionality of these sections on the player. They all work the same and we already know what they are, so I'll just discuss them collectively.
When you're playing a song on the Zune, you can press the center button. As a Zune pass subscriber my option is to simply add the song to my collection. Otherwise I believe the option is a buy option. Either way, I can move songs directly from Adam's collection into my own. Again, if you don't have the Zune Pass you're only going to get a sample of the song. This is something I'd like to see changed to have the 3 plays function apply to this music as well.
If you're at a WiFi hotspot, you can also go into the marketplace and look up more music from the artist right on the device. This means that if you're out and like what you just heard and want more, you can get it! This is the best part to me since I listen to music on my Zune far more than I do on the desktop. Opening my Social on the device is always a fun way to see what new things I may have downloaded the night before.
The best part is that none of this requires actually being in the same place. It happens naturally as part of just using the player. While the wireless sharing can definitely be neat the true power of the Social comes from the network of friends you've added. In that spirit, I want to just say that anyone is welcome to add me as a friend and hope many do since I like adding Zune cards to my player. I'll set up a separate discussion thread for people who would like to share their Zune cards here with each other. I think its really the best function of the Zune for music lovers and I hope those who don't really understand how the Social works can see that much of the functionality that you want from it actually exists. There's certainly room for improvement as with everything. I'd especially like to see Microsoft tie the marketplace a bit more closely into the player so that you can jump right to an artist in the marketplace from your collection.
David Tucker is a software developer who writes for Zune Thoughts in his spare time. He is a fan of all things technology. If it runs on electricity, he wants it! He currently resides in the subtropical paradise of Florida.