SHIFT: What Microsoft's Zune player has to do to beat the iPod

Each week Adam Frucci takes a closer look at the latest gadget buzz in his column, Shift.

Image by Falon

The iPod is the clear leader in digital audio players and has been since its launch for a reason — many reasons, in fact: simple design, ease of use, and elegant syncing with iTunes and its music store. Those features are often imitated but have yet to be improved upon. Everyone's been waiting for Microsoft, which most of the time is Apple's largest and most fierce rival, to directly take on the iPod, and it now looks like the company's getting around to doing just that. The player on the other side is the mystery-enshrouded Zune, rumored to be slated for a holiday season release this year. However, in order to get me to ditch my beloved iPod, the Zune is going to have to do more than just imitate the king of the mountain. It needs to load on features that I'll want as soon as I hear about them without becoming cluttered and confusing. That's not an easy task.

Now I'm no Apple fanboy — I do my blogging from my trusty PC, thank you very much — but I love my iPod. I never leave the apartment without it, and it makes the subway rides around New York City a more bearable experience. I love it not only for its clean interface and intuitive controls, but for the lack of tacked-on features I would never use. I don't need an FM tuner, as FM radio sucks and I never listen to it. I don't need a voice recorder, since I'm not a doctor and don't leave myself audio notes. Features like those that come on rival players are bloat that gobble up space and battery life. "Added features" such as these would actually turn me off to the Zune if they were included.

However, while there are many features I don't want, the ability to wirelessly share songs with other people would be amazing. Telling my roommate about a new album that I love and being able to send it to him while we walk down the street together is a potentially huge selling point. Adding wireless interconnectivity to the Zune would allow Microsoft to create an entire new way of sharing music and would almost certainly drive up sales. However, the thought of Microsoft, the king of intrusive copyright-protecting DRM (digital rights management), actually encouraging sharing content in a simple and elegant fashion is hard to imagine.

Expanding on the wireless idea, the ability to easily download songs from Urge (Microsoft and MTV's answer to the iTunes Music Store) from anywhere via Wi-Fi would be great, but only if implemented properly. If the prices remained the same as if you were downloading from a computer and the speeds were decent, it would be extremely convenient and no doubt a huge moneymaker for Urge. However, if the service was bogged down by jacked up prices and a slow or unreliable connection, it would be more of a burden than a benefit.

There have been a lot of rumors of game functionality being added not only to the Zune, but to the next-generation iPods. This seems like a mistake. If I want to play portable games, I'll go buy a Nintendo DS. Adding all of the internal hardware and external controls to make any type of gaming realistic would not only totally change the nature of the device, but jack up the price and size of the unit as well. The only way I could see this becoming a successful venture is if a separate model (an Xbaby?) was released alongside the music-only model, combining the two features for those who actually want it. Maybe a separate gamepad could be released to convert the portables into gaming machines, but even then the innards of the music players would be bloated and made more expensive by graphics hardware.

In order for the Zune to truly succeed in taking on the iPod, Microsoft needs to adopt a less-is-more attitude. I don't need a million new features, just one or two that will change the way I use my portable audio player. And those features need to be simple and unfettered by intrusive copyright protection and uncluttered by a busy interface. These aren't traits we've ever seen from Microsoft, a company known for design that's exactly the opposite of these characteristics. However, if the Big M is serious about taking on the iPod — one of the most popular electronic gadgets ever created — it'll need to change the way it does things, because the last thing we need is more of the same.