Microsoft’s Zune – iPod Beater?

Zune 2

Microsoft has announced, this week, that they’re planning a new version of their ‘Zune’ series of mp3 players. Not particularly big news, you’d think – the Zune sold 1.2 million units last year, the iPod over 30 million – but the fact that this announcement is gathering headlines on both mainstream news websites and niche technology blogs is good news: it’s competition.

Apple has, let’s face it, reveled in the fact that their product is now the byword for digital music players. People don’t talk, these days, about buying a new mp3 player. They’ll go to the store and buy a new iPod. When the first models were introduced back in 2001 they were an antidote to what Steve Jobs saw as ‘clunky’ and ‘useless’ players – most of the market then and, ironically, how the first generation iPod appears now.

It’s a well documented story that, since the first of Apple’s new machines caught the public imagination and sold in their millions back in the second half of 2004, they’ve dominated the market. Microsoft has now announced their new model and, with it, a raft of new features that include Zune Social, a networking site based around the player’s owners and their musical tastes.

Previously, the Zune – a competent player itself – had been shadowed, and other companies, like Creative, have produced products to rival the iPod but garnered only modest sales. The hugely innovative, stylish and attractive product introduced by Apple back in 2001 has made the rest of the market wake up and smell the mp3’s being burned to iPod’s all over the country: they had to wake up and catch up.

Thank god they did. The market’s full, now, of products that have had to raise their game to compete with Apple’s behemoth marketing budget. Creative’s entire range includes smaller models, inspired by the Nano, to full-size music masters. They’re aesthetically pleasing, durable and have excellent sound quality, just like the iPod. Archos players also consistently receive rave reviews, as do Samsung’s players. It’s a shame, then, that snappy adverts backed up by a multi-million pound marketing budget and the benefits of having an enviable reputation for success and credibility are the only things missing from making these perfectly worthy pieces of equipment a success.

I’m not saying that the iPod is a bad player – because it’s not. It’s got a great interface and is very good at what it does, even though file playback, and even iTunes itself, can be a little restrictive. It’s just worth exploring your options – now more than ever. There’s far more choice open to consumers than there ever has been, so make the most of it: vive la difference!