Coming Zune

There’s something so American about competition, that it doesn’t seem absurd for Microsoft, the largest company of its kind in history, to be an underdog in a scrap with Apple.

The digital music niche is all but owned by iTunes and the iPod. Microsoft has been a feeble player in this game. Their alternative to MP3, WMA, is a format most noteworthy for its restrictiveness, not technical superiority. Digital media players from Creative, Philips and others aren’t nearly as sexy as the iPod (which doesn’t work with WMA-only services like Napster and Rhapsody).

Their solution, not surprisingly, is to take Apple’s approach. Microsoft announced Zune the other day – a “brand,” due this November, that so far includes an iPod-killer portable music device and a download service to replace the listless MSN Music. It’s described as “one part MySpace, one part iTunes and one part Xbox Live,” so the buzz on web sites like Engaget and Gizmodo is that in addition to accessing digital music, the Zune might also play video games – “connected entertainment” in Microsoft parlance.

Ripping another page out of Apple’s playbook, there are rumored plans for Zune-enabled “smart phones,” continuing the long march to total digital convergence.

To sweeten the pot for iPod addicts (like yours truly), Microsoft is falling back on a technique they perfected with products like Outlook and Internet Explorer – giving away the store. Zune will scan your computer for songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store, and automatically grant a license for them on the new music player.

Of course, that doesn’t address the 95 percent or so of music on digital music on portable players that wasn’t bought online.

First looks at the Zune player are promising. The screen is at least 25 percent bigger, and it’s equipped with wireless integration that works not only with Microsoft but several other legal download sites. That’s quite gush-worthy.

Like the VHS/Beta video format wars of 20 years ago, consumers will be the ultimate winners in this fight. For the moment, Apple is the leader, and it’s going to take more than a bigger screen to change that. This particular competition is more like the battle between cable and satellite television, an incremental one that’s ultimately allowed more people to enjoy previously unavailable entertainment, and more cheaply besides.

I can hardly wait to see what Steve Jobs has up his sleeve in response.

Here’s what’s cooking this weekend:

Thursday: Meetinghouse Readings, Canaan – This is a change of pace recommendation. There’s no music involved, unless you count the cadence of beautiful words. Built in 1793, the Meetinghouse exudes a civilizing force. Over the years, writers like John Griesemer, Chris Bohjalian and Alice Munro have taken listeners to beautiful imaginary worlds. Tonight, NH Poet Laureate Patricia Fargnoli and memoirist Mary Childers read from their work. It’s free, as well.

Friday: Carey Lee Rush, Bistro Nouveau – Long on the local music scene, going back to the original lineup of Last Kid Picked, Carey makes his Bistro debut tonight. He’s played with everybody everywhere it seems, but these days he’s trucking around town as a “one man blues band.” With any luck, the weather will cooperate. Last Saturday, Pete Merrigan had to take the show indoors after the deluge closed the new patio.

Saturday: Incognito, Claremont First Congregational Church – A benefit show in the church sanctuary to raise money for new hand bells (you’d be amazed at how much they cost). Incognito is a group of local guys who play for the love of music, everything from Pink Floyd (the mellower stuff in church, I presume) to Fleetwood Mac.

Sunday: Lowell Folk Festival Day 3 – This is the 20th incarnation of the free festival, begun in 1987. Today, Peruvian masters Inca Son perform, along with the Bullock Brothers, the jazzy Hot 8 Brass Band, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys and others. It starts at noon, running on four stages until 6 PM.

Monday: Blue Monday, Salt Hill Pub – The latest innovation from this music-friendly bar is a series of blues sessions, with three bands sharing a weekly rotation, Larry Dougher, Mike Benoit, and tonight Have Blues Will Travel. Unlike Tuesdays and Thursdays, this isn’t an open mike or jam session, just solid blues played on a day that’s perfect for it, when you think of it.

Tuesday: Kim Richey, Iron Horse – There are a handful of female performers out there who defy classification, but demand to be heard. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin … and Kim Richey, probably the most underrated of the bunch. She’s known in country circles for writing Radney Foster’s “Nobody Wins” and Trisha Yearwood’s “Believe Me Baby (I Lied).” But it’s her more esoteric work that I love – moody little vignettes like “Girl In a Car,” “No Judges,” and the should-have-been-a-hit “I Know.”

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