BitDepth 544 - October 03

Microsoft introduces a new MP3 player, the Zune and Apple revamps its iPods...
Media player war heats up

Microsoft's Zune player (left) is the Redmond company's first effort to recreate the iTunes-iPod media sales and playback ecosystem. Photo courtesy Microsoft.
Apple's iPod family photo for September 2006, the more capacious iPod, the more colourful iPod Nano and the less is more iPod Shuffle. Photo courtesy Apple Computer.

Zune come
Even as Apple Computer announced its latest fine-tuning to the market-leading iPod line, arch-rival Microsoft was gearing up to release its own entry in the billion dollar media player sweepstakes, the Zune player.
Microsoft is sticking to a familiar playbook here, crafting its entry into a market in which it's beginning from behind the pack by buying what it needs to get started and cloning the style of the big players.

The Zune player is part of what the Redmond company describes as the Zune experience, which includes a website for downloading music, accessories for incorporating the player into user's lifestyles and adding features to the leading brand to create a competitive edge.
Having hit the obvious checkboxes in creating an iPod competitor, Microsoft has one-upped the high-end iPod player by building in a larger screen, wireless connectivity for sharing songs with a Zune buddy, a built-in FM tuner, and an extra colour, brown.

The last time Microsoft entered a lucrative market from this far behind was when it called a halt to other development to turn its attention to the Internet, licensing Mosaic's browser technology (the predecessor to Netscape) and building out from there to create Internet Explorer.

This time, Microsoft is tapping Toshiba's work on the Gigabeat S to get a product to market quickly with some cosmetic changes.
Microsoft's Zune supports WMA and MP3 files. Music purchased online for the product will be rights managed to only play back on the Zune player. Video formats supported include H.264, WMV and MPEG4. The Zune player sells for US$229.

Updated iPods
Apple Computer announced updates to its iPod line of portable media players this month, enhancing the top end, beautifying the middle of the line and shrinking the low-end iPod Shuffle.
In sync with the company's new emphasis on downloadable media of steadily increasing size, the new premium iPod ships with an 80GB drive offering more elbow room for the new gigabyte sized movie downloads now available from the iTunes store.

The wafer-thin iPod Nano now comes in pretty colours, but the real news is the near disappearance of the iPod Shuffle, an MP3 player roughly the side of three sticks of chewing gum that's now been folded up into a tiny square that could do double duty as a techy boutonnière.

Buyer's remarks
The issues surrounding a choice between Microsoft's Zune and Apple's iPod come down to your choice of media format, since only holders of a valid credit card drawn on a US bank can shop at any official music store. Well, except for, which exists in a curious legal limbo out there in Russia.

Most users will be encoding existing music to the almost ubiquitous MP3 format, which both players support, or viewing video on some variant of MPEG4, and the most common codecs should play back on both. The Zune's screen is larger, but the device is bigger and at least one of them is brown, a colour that consumers only favour in a shoe and woodwork.
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