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Old 10-27-2006, 08:00 PM
Jason Dunn
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Default The Misunderstood Zune Upgrade Ability & Why I'm Still Excited...

Since launching this site and diving deep into everything about the Zune, I've noticed a repeating pattern over and over: Zune bloggers, and even Microsoft Zune staffers themselves, have touted the ability to upgrade the Zune as being some sort of amazing ability that other digital media players lack. I'm not sure where this comes from, but even Robert Scoble has fallen into the trap of thinking that this is somehow special. It's not. Every digital media player going back five years or more, has had the ability to be upgraded with new firmware. New firmware usually offers bug fixes, new features, or sometimes removes features (like Creative did with the new Zen Vision:M firmware update that removes FM radio recording).

I believe that confusion comes from people thinking that because the Zune has WiFi built in, that somehow the device will be able to perform stand-alone upgrades without needing to be connected to a PC. Nothing I've read to date indicates that will be possible out of the box - when there's a new firmware update available, you'll get it installed by connecting your Zune to your PC and downloading it with the Zune desktop client software. That's the way it works with the iPod, and that's the way it should work with other players as well, except most have such horrific desktop software clients that no one wants to install them. At best, the Zune has parity with the iPod in this regard: you'll connect your Zune to your PC, and the software will (presumably) inform you there's a new update for your Zune.

Now here's why I'm still excited about the Zune: for all of the frustration I feel about the massively limited WiFi capabilities, I believe firmly that the Zune will evolve more rapidly than any other digital media player on the market. Here's why: since the release of the Xbox 360 about a year ago, there have been three major updates.
The June 6th update in particular had a massive number of updates and improvements. When my Xbox 360 was upgraded to have the ability to queue up six downloads at a time, it was a huge boost to my satisfaction with the console. The Zune group is under the management of J. Allard, the guy behind the Xbox 360. Some members of the Zune team are from the Xbox 360 team. To me, that says that the Zune team is going to place a high value on upgrading the software on the Zune, and delivering new value to their customers. To date, there hasn't been a detailed screen by screen walkthrough of the software on the Zune. Why not? I believe it's because the Zune team members who have been showing the product off in person are running a newer firmware update and don't want to reveal what's new. The Zune software was probably locked down and sent off to manufacturing in the July timeframe, so by the time the devices ship in November, I'm willing to bet there will be a new update for the player upon first connection. Many aspects of the Zune seem quite rushed to me, which further underscores my belief that the Zune team wanted to deliver more features around WiFi (look at how one feature was in the FCC-submitted manual, then cut) but simply didn't have the time.

A key factor in the ease of updates is the fact that Microsoft controls the whole platform from end to end. In the Windows Mobile world of Pocket PCs and Smartphones, I've seen the same scenario play out over and over: the Windows Mobile team creates a software update with bug fixes and completely new features, and all they can do is hand it off to the device manufacturers and mobile phone carriers and hope that they release it to their customers. Quite often, that software is never released to the customers because the device manufacturers either don't want to put the time and money into customizing it for their particular devices (which is necessary due to low-level hardware issues), or they want to offer those new software features in a new hardware device they can sell. I've seen first hand the frustration this causes the Microsoft team members who work on this software - they can't deliver the update directly to the customer, and the customer is the one that suffers with a buggy device.

There are no such limits with the Zune, and my hope is that 12 months after release the Zune will have had a series of software upgrades that make it seem more like a v2 device than anything else - the included WiFi offers tremendous potential for the Zune to evolve into delivering some killer scenarios, and Microsoft has a clear path to deliver them to Zune owners. I believe they will do exactly that.
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