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Originally published Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Zune enters MP3 race with many miles to go

Don't be fooled by the marketing stunts Microsoft is using to promote the Zune, its belated iPod challenger going on sale today. Microsoft has no illusions...

Seattle Times senior technology reporter

Don't be fooled by the marketing stunts Microsoft is using to promote the Zune, its belated iPod challenger going on sale today.

Microsoft has no illusions it will beat Apple Computer in the digital-music business, at least not for a couple of years.

For now it's content to spread the word of Zune, planting dandelion seeds with a barrage of ads, retail displays, online videos and offbeat promotions like the free concerts held Monday in major cities across the country.

During Seattle's concert at Westlake Park, Chairman Bill Gates showed up in a brown Zune jacket and gave one of the players to a music fan in the audience, 35-year-old Melanie Gray of Tacoma.

Apple iPod fans are scoffing and rolling their eyes at the first Zune, a $249 model with a 30-gigabyte hard drive.

It's slightly thicker than the comparable iPod but it has a bigger screen and the ability to wirelessly share songs, photos and playlists with other Zunes.

Microsoft is also launching a free Zune software jukebox and online music store today, and it's working on a range of different Zune devices that will be released over the next few years.

"In a lot of ways, it's just the beginning of this vision," Gates said at the concert, where he briefly took the stage with New York rockers The Secret Machines, who performed for perhaps 100 journalists, publicity agents, police, music fans and lunchgoers huddled around the tent-covered stage.

To demonstrate the Zune's wireless music-sharing feature, KEXP disc jockey John Richards beamed a song from his Zune to the one Gates was holding, before it was given away.

Richards gushed about the device, noting its big screen and "rich, Seattle feel."

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"I've had this for maybe 24 hours and I've already figured out how it works," he said.

Chief Executive Steve Ballmer stayed in Redmond, where he said by phone that he expects Microsoft will "pretty much" sell all the Zunes it will produce this holiday season.

The company will make money on the hardware, unlike the money-losing Xbox console, but for the first few years it will spend even more building the Zune brand.

Ballmer said the Zune's wireless sharing brings a social aspect to music that "fits with our entertainment aspirations."

Does he have any regrets Microsoft didn't enter the market sooner, before Apple became so dominant?

"Everything's always nicer if it's done sooner," Ballmer said. "I think we have an innovative concept. We're getting in at a good time for wireless and social interaction."

None of that business stuff matters to potential buyers like Hillary Bernoff, 15. She was wandering through downtown Seattle when she came across the concert, where a reporter asked if it got her interested in the Zune.

"What is a Zune?" she said.

But it turns out Bernoff is in the market for an MP3 player, and not one made by Apple.

"I didn't really want to buy another iPod," she said, "because my first one broke."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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