Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The moon has only four major phases, but as the Zune -- that satellite around Microsoft's gravitational pull -- enters a familiar fifth phase, what some consider a pale reflection of the iPod has made few waves despite inspiring its share of romantics. Zune began as a new salvo against the iPod as Microsoft grew frustrated in its attempts to make inroads versus Apple's soaring digital media device with its abysmally named and convoluted PlaysForSure rights management scheme. PlaysForSure had actually achieved some level of acceptance on digital music players and even handsets, but as Steve Ballmer has explained, devices that sell in the tens of millions of units per year -- as opposed to hundreds of millions like PCs and handsets (Kin notwithstanding) -- can be a good opportunity for vertical integration of hardware and software.

And so was born Zune, welcoming us to the social with its chunky profile, brown color option, "double shot" facade and the quirky and later abandoned WiFi-based song-squirting sharing feature. Its next major iteration introduced the "squircle" -- a rounded square clickable trackpad that surpassed the click wheel just as Apple was gearing up for the game-changing iPod touch: strike two.

Microsoft would try again with the Zune HD, combining a beautiful OLED display, serviceable browser, and innovative touch user interface that would serve as a foundation for the Metro UI being rolled out on Windows Phone 7. Microsoft released a few free apps for the Zune HD, including an auspicious spin on Project Gotham Racing , but even these leaps forward lacked the momentum of apps that the iPod touch was building in tandem with the iPhone.

From there, it was on to Plan D: embedding the Zune software in other devices, starting with Microsoft efforts such as the XBox 360, which was certainly more successful than the service's cameo on the short-lived Kin. Before the end of the year, though, the Zune service -- launched as part of a closed experience that Microsoft created specifically under the premise of eliminating third-party involvement -- will debut on Windows Phone 7 devices made by third-party hardware manufacturers. The Zune has come full-squircle.

Meanwhile, on the Zune software's home platform of Windows, little has changed in terms of Microsoft's message -- or lack thereof -- on the reconciliation between Windows Media Player and the Zune software. There have been two major versions of Windows and three major upgrades to the Zune software since the Zune's inception. But subscription tracks downloaded from Rhapsody or Napster to Go cannot work with the Zune. And Zune Pass content cannot be used with Rhapsody and Napster-compatible MP3 players from SanDisk or Philips, much less Rhapsody-compatible in-home music streaming devices from Sonos and Logitech.

Microsoft likely could have realized many of the Zune's token wins had it called upon its vaunted tenacity and simply renamed and simplified PlaysForSure.


Many who believe in the promise of music subscription services think the key is simply educating consumers about the benefits of access versus ownership. But, actually, it is the consumers that have an important lesson for them -- that a lack of interoperability in music subscriptions causes the same level of confusion and frustration that it did for purchases. In contrast, the iPod -- the device that caused such ire over its closed nature -- can now play MP3 tracks purchased from the Zune music store, and the Zune can play AAC downloads purchased via iTunes. And while no Zune device is yet compatible with Rhapsody, the iPod touch and iPhone are via the Rhapsody app.

There have been some positive developments associated with the Zune effort. Among these have been the fresh combination of subscription and download credits of Zune Pass, the easy discoverability of music via features such as Smart DJ, and the refined, chiseled hardware and innovative, engaging embedded software experience of the Zune HD.

If Microsoft needed to launch a brand and alienate partners to achieve this, then it may have done the right thing. Given that third-party hardware is so important to the future of the Zune service, though, Microsoft likely could have realized many of the Zune's token wins -- and avoided fragmenting a subscription service landscape already facing a challenging proposition -- had it called upon its vaunted tenacity and simply renamed and simplified PlaysForSure. Perhaps, in a broader historical context, that's exactly what it has done.


Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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