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Old 11-10-2006, 02:00 PM
Jason Dunn
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Default Here's Why The Zune Isn't PlaysForSure

There's been a lot of frustration expressed by some people about why the Zune isn't PlaysForSure compatible, meaning why didn't Microsoft allow it to work with Napster, MSN Music, etc., and this post is my guess at why Microsoft went in this direction. First, you have to understand that the Zune team is under the same management roof, and thus shares many of the same values, as the Xbox team. The guiding ethos of the Xbox team is something along the lines of "If we control the experience, end to end, we can ensure it will rock". I believe that's exactly what the Zune team had in mind when they started this project a scant eleven months ago.  So the question becomes, why would they think they needed to control the experience, end to end?

To answer that, I look to my own experience with PlaysForSure. I had a Napster account with a Napster ToGo subscription for around eight months, and I used it heavily - and saw all the ugliness. The truth is that while Napster's subscription system sounded great on paper - all the music you can eat for $15 a month - I found it to be problematic. I downloaded a lot of music right to my hard drive, and listened to it day after day. I'd say on average of 8-10 times a week, the music would stop playing and Napster would demand that I re-authenticate myself by entering my password. This is despite the fact that I always had the box checked off for "remember my password", and that the Napster service was only supposed to require authentication once every 30 days. I was using their software client that was embedded inside Windows Media Player 10, and it was so incredibly sluggish and crash prone it made me weep. Napster customer service was next to useless helping me with the issues I contacted them about.

The device experience was a bit better - once the music got onto my Zen Micro it played back fine - but I recall having some issues getting authorized music onto the player. I eventually cancelled my Napster subscription and went back to ripping CDs. I have a Creative Zen Visiom:M, and I think it's a fantastic media player, but all the music I put on it is from CD or downloaded DRM'd music (from MSN Music) that I've burned and re-ripped. It might be PlaysForSure compliant, but I don't use it that way because the experience was anything but "for sure".

Now ask yourself a question: if my experience wasn't that unusual (and I believe it's not), why would Microsoft want to connect their Zune into such a dysfunctional ecosystem? Let's say they made the Zune PlaysForSure compatible, and a customer was using it with Napster, and had the same problems I had. How much influence or control would the Zune team have over Napster's half-assed implementation of the music experience? The customer might call up Zune tech support and complain he's having a problem, and the Zune tech support team is put in exactly the same place as the Windows tech support team - blaming the other guy when all the customer wants is a solution to the problem. What if some MSN Music DRM'd tracks won't sync over to the device? Imagine how frustrating it would be for a customer to be told that although both are Microsoft companies, they're from different groups and the Zune tech can't fix the broken MSN Music DRM? This is one reason that Apple excels at what they do: a closed hardware platform with tightly integrated software is much easier to control and troubleshoot.

Microsoft knows they need to make the Zune platform as simple as possible, because their partners did not, and making the Zune PlaysForSure would open up the Zune platform to a huge array of potential problems, making the experience just as rocky as everything before it. For the Zune to have a chance against the iPod juggernaut, it has to be better than anything we've seen so far - and for that, some rules need to be broken.
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