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Ready, set, play: Zune challenging iconic iPod
Seattle Times technology reporter
Can Microsoft harness cool in a 5-ounce music player? And can it do it in the long shadow of the iPod, which has charted a course in cool for five years?
The company will find out starting Tuesday, when the chunky, fits-in-your-pocket Zune music player goes on sale in the U.S. for $250.
The Zune sets off on a path filled with the corpses of upstart music players that have gone before, a trail of survival that ends with toppling the seemingly untouchable iPod.
And while much has been written about what's inside the Zune — 30 gigabytes of storage, an FM radio, the ability to interact with other Zunes wirelessly — the first test of the music player will be what's on the outside. How does it feel in your hand? What's the screen like? Would you want to be seen in public with one?
The outside appearance starts with color. Apple audaciously chose white, and before competitors copied the look there was no denying that someone bopping around on the sidewalk with white headphones was an iPodder.
Microsoft is also staking its place with color, but it went for the other end of the spectrum: brown. Or "suede," as it's known internally.
To mark the launch of the Zune, Microsoft is staging free concerts in several cities across the country, including Seattle. The Seattle party will feature the band Secret Machines and will take place from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. today at Westlake Park, at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street.
The Zune also comes in white and black, referred to within the company as "cotton" and "flannel." No word on whether the accessories are called Downy or Tide.
"They're extensions of the clothes that we want to wear every day, soft fabrics," said Steve Kaneko, design director of the Zune.
"They're warm and they're everyday, and that is what we wanted to bring to this category."
OK, fair enough. But brown? Consumer electronics don't come in brown. Even the LG Chocolate, one of the hottest cellphones out right now, is black.
A store shelf standout
But that's exactly what will set the Zune apart, according to Microsoft. The company found that when shown all three colors at once, people would often pick up the brown one first. It's that different. But that didn't necessarily mean they liked it.
"The brown color actually has people working," Kaneko said. "They're thinking really hard if they like it or hate it, or all of the above. It's doing exactly what we wanted to do."
Brown is extremely fashionable now, said Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association of the United States. Many people say it's the new black, she said — and she was serious.
"Brown in the past has been somewhat earth-related," she said. "It's been grounded and practical. But I think the new browns are purple browns and blackened browns and interesting buffy browns."
And in the Zune's case, green brown. The brown Zune has an overlay of green, almost that glowy, antifreeze green Microsoft chose as a highlight for its Xbox video-game consoles.
It's an interesting choice, given that some key Xbox creators developed the Zune. But unlike the Xbox, the green in the Zune is so subtle, it doesn't stand out unless it's at a certain angle.
The green adds what Kaneko describes as "acidity," and it makes the Zune seem even more out in left field.
But there's no mistake here. Every aspect of the player's look has been carefully studied and given focus-group treatment.
Mix and match
Kaneko's design team started out with piles of color samples, mixing and matching them to get a sense of how they paired up. Kaneko said the team analyzed at least 50 color schemes, including rich purples and blues and beautiful pinks.
But ultimately, they wanted to do more than just offer a color. They wanted emotion. They wanted people to look at the Zune and feel something.
To the designers, brown represented the independence of spirit they wanted the Zune to convey.
"Who in their right mind would produce a brown electronic product?" Kaneko asked. "Artists would. Musicians would. This is very underground. This is Seattle grunge. This is our Kurt Cobain."
Just to drive that point a little further, every Zune has the phrase "Hello from Seattle" engraved in the back.
Not everyone is sold.
"I'm a winter, and browns and winters don't go together very well," joked technology analyst Rob Enderle.
He doesn't think Microsoft will sell many brown Zunes, and said he thinks the iPod looks better. After years of pushing white, Apple seems to be moving to black as a standard color.
But Enderle admits he might not be in the demographic Microsoft is going for. He still prefers a Porsche to a Scion, but the Zune's target audience tends to like the cute, hip Scions.
Color is just one of a host of factors that could determine the Zune's success. It has a bright, 3-inch screen, bigger than the iPod's, but it doesn't have the iPod's scroll wheel and uses a click wheel instead.
It works exclusively with the Zune Marketplace online music store, where users can buy individual songs or a subscription plan to download songs for a monthly fee. It comes with a built-in FM radio, a feature the iPod lacks.
It also has a unique, limited sharing system that allows users to share songs with other Zune users through a wireless transfer.
Early reviews are in the so-so range.
A New York Times columnist called it "barren," without any of the standard iPod amenities, including games, a calendar, equalizer, world clock or address book.
Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Mossberg said it has "too many compromises and missing features to be as good a choice as the iPod."
But Microsoft has gone out of its way to establish good relationships with music and retail partners for the Zune, kind of like a parent who might make nice with other parents before the first day of kindergarten.
The Zune will go on sale at an estimated 30,000 retail locations, far more than the iPod started out in.
And it comes at a time retailers are pretty fed up with the way Apple treats them, Enderle said. When iPods are in short supply, for example, the retailers don't get many shipments while Apple's stores seem to have plenty.
Music labels are also frustrated with Apple and have quarreled for years about pricing and profit distribution.
Microsoft, by contrast, has struck a deal to give Universal Music Group a payment for every Zune player sold. In return, Universal will give the company broader music rights and access to artists.
The Zune has the opportunity to steal market share from Apple, probably more than any other player that has existed in this space, Enderle said. But on the other hand, it's untested, and you never really know what will play well on store shelves.
"It's either going to be a really big hit or a really big dog," Enderle said. "I just don't see this falling in the middle."
Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company