Fun Blackberry & Zune Rumors

mgopenbox.jpgFrom CrunchGear comes word that Research in Motion may have purchased MusicGremlin, the makers of the first Wi Fi music player, and are getting ready to release a Blackberry with music.

It’s all rumors at this point, driven by MusicGremlin’s strange absence since their somewhat innovative and almost virtually ignored device hit the market in early 2006. Bigger players have gotten a lot more ink Recently, Sansa announced the Connect, due for March retail, which will hopefully incorporate Rhapsody’s Channels feature along with other download services.

And much has been made of the Zune’s wireless capability, though unlike MusicGremlin, you can’t buy music wirelessly with Microsoft’s iPod-wannabe, only share it with other users (and from all accounts, that feature also sucks).

Speaking of Zune, the other cool rumor of the day also comes from CrunchGear – a “sound tip” that Microsoft is working on a Zune phone. Writes Blake Robinson:

It will be a smartphone that works homogeneously with the Zune marketplace. It will most likely not, however, run Windows Mobile. Rather it’ll make use of an interface similar to the current Zune, an interface that I consider among the best available on audio players—I’m sure it can transition to a phone easily.

There’s also XBox 360 video streaming planned, which lines up nicely with that gaming devices built-in video download capabilities. As much as I detested the Zune’s execution at rollout, one must remember that it usually takes Big Redmond two or three swings of the bat before they hit the long ball. Remember Windows? After all, the code name for Windows 95 was Macintosh 84.

Zune Faces Competition In Sansa Connect

sansaconnect.jpgWith the announcement of the Sansa Connect at the recent CES, Microsoft faces serious competition to the the much-hyped Zune. Two key differences in the Wi-Fi player are the focus on Internet radio, and a less DRM-crippled version of Microsoft’s much-hyped song sharing feature.

Microsoft doomed the so-called “community” aspect of the Zune at the outset, requiring that wirelessly traded songs first be purchased from the complicated, consumer-hostile Zune Marketplace, and limiting beamed songs to three plays before they were crippled. No surprise, then, that the Redmond giant announced yesterday that their iPod killer died last quarter. It lost, as my Canadian friends say, a WHACK of money:

The company is betting heavily on the consumer electronics business for future growth, and late last year it introduced a digital media player, Zune, which competes with Apple’s iPod. But Microsoft’s consumer entertainment and devices unit has contributes no profits yet, losing $289 million in the quarter.

Sansa’s device runs on Zing’s technology; their offering got a shot in the arm with the recently announced alliance with FON Networks which will provide free Wi-Fi access in several cities, which should make the Internet radio component much more valuable:

FON’s WiFi network is the largest in the world touting over 215,000 distinct WiFi hotspots, with over 17,000 in the U.S. alone. Hotspot providers are members (called Foneros) who share their unused bandwidth on a FON router in exchange for free WiFi access when roaming through any other FON access point. Through this partnership, consumers using ZING platform, software and services on their mobile players will have the opportunity to become free Foneros and have free unlimited WiFi access directly from their music players.

The only downside to the Sansa Connect is that there’s no explicit Rhapsody component. But the product spec sheet seems to say that the device will connect to any Plays-For-Sure service on the go. I would assume that includes Rhapsody. If this is so, then I’m even more excited, based on the Engadget CES demo showing some insanley cool features, like direct-to-device downloads, community friend finders and such.

This device itself isn’t news, and not just because this post comes two weeks after CES. Anyone with a Sirius Stiletto will recognize the design; SanDisk didn’t build it from the ground up, they simply licensed and re-branded Zing’s device.

Two complaints about this: The Zing device has 8 GB of onboard memory, the Sansa Connect only has four. SanDisk is touting the SD expansion slot, but as readers of this blog know, at the present time this additional storage will only work with non-DRM’d content, on the Rhapsody player anyway.  That kind of defeats the whole purpose of the extra space,  and makes we wonder why the Connect doesn’t simply ship with the full 8 GB.

It probably has to do with the fact that SanDisk’s main business is storage cards.  A company engineer told me a couple weeks ago that SanDisk is working on ways to make this extra capacity integrate with the device. I hope it happens before the Connect becomes available for retail customers in March.

Zune Wireless Doesn’t Do Much – Now

zune23.jpgVia Engadget, it appears that the 802.11b functionality built into Microsoft’s Zune player, due November 14, is pretty feeble. The song-swapping feature is hobbled by DRM, which itself is burdened by its exclusivity. As noted in this space and countless others, Zune utilizes a new encryption standard, and in the process orphans Plays For Sure and alienates countless content partners.

What’s in the wireless? Here’s a breakdown:

You can:

Search for and find other Zunes nearby.

Send songs / albums for the 3 x 3 trial. Songs past the three days / listens are deleted at next sync, but catalogued on your PC for record-keeping should you want to purchase them later. No word on whether Microsoft is going to keep track of which files are traded.

Send and receive image files for “unlimited viewing.” (Oh, so copyrighted images aren’t worth DRMing?)

You can’t:

Connect to the internet.

Download songs directly from the Zune store via WiFi.

Sync to your computer via WiFi.

What’s still not clear is whether the song-swapping feature is limited to Zune DRM’d songs, or if it works regardless of format. Because of the 3×3 shutdown capability, I’d say it’s just Zune format, but I could be wrong.

The Zune’s wireless capability could be used further down the road, a move that would be consistent with Microsoft’s actions on another platform. Comments Ashley Allen:

They put a network card in every Xbox and it was pretty much useless for the first year, but then Xbox Live came round and totally changed the whole market and then if you look at where Xbox Live started and where it is today… MS gave the people what they wanted.

I wouldn’t be suprised if features like WiFi on Zune access to the Marketplace, Zune Marketplace on 360, WiFi Syncing and such come along very soon. But at least it has the possibility to do these things in the future.

Another feature I’d like to see is yet to be discussed – using WiFi to access rich content on the Internet. Obviously it’s not there, since the only WiFi thing the Zune does is talk other Zunes.

So far, nothing about the Zune impresses me, apart from a nice display.

Zune Swoon

zune23.jpgAs noted by MTV, the official announcement of Zune, Microsoft’s attempt to compete with the iPod, was made last week. Whatever hope I had for this device disappeared the moment I realized that Marketplace, the iTunes-like music store designed to feed the Zune, is yet another iteration of DRM, one that abandons the fledgling Plays For Sure standard:

Users can also share homemade recordings, playlists and pictures wirelessly with no restrictions, though Erickson said songs purchased from iTunes or other download stores that have digital rights-management protection will not play on the Zune.

This means that Rhapsody, AOL’s Music Now service, Napster, not to mention iTunes, are all left out in the cold with Zune. It had better be a damn good device, or Marketplace the be-all end-all store. Otherwise, Zune will end up a eCost closeout before next Christmas.

More bad news is that the rumored iTunes song buyback isn’t going to happen either, at least it wasn’t part of the announcement. Add to that the ridiculously overhyped wireless song sharing feature’s actual specifics, and it becomes clear that the only bit of foresight Microsoft had in creating this mess was offering one in brown.

Zune players connect to one another via Wi-Fi, and users can ship songs, playlists or photos to a friend’s device. Each song can be played three times before it will be disabled.

Reading between the lines, that means only Marketplace songs can be shared. Right, like real music fans are chomping at the bit to swap self-crippling content with their buddies.

It does have one intriguing feature, something I hope Apple or Creative Zen picks up when they roll out a Wi-Fi player:

At launch, Zune will include artist profiles, upcoming events, music suggestions and favorite play lists from musicians. Forums will be added later to encourage interaction between users…

I hope that means Wi-Fi streaming of concert announcements, early ticket sales and fan club only specials. Something like that could would be revolutionary.

Otherwise, most of what Zune promises is more clumsy me-too crap.

With Zune, Toshiba Triangulates

mp3players.jpgAn FCC filing announced Friday indicates that the Microsoft Zune is being built by Toshiba. It will feature a 30 GB drive and a wireless connection for song and photo swapping, although early reports indicate that the music-sharing component is, typically for Microsoft, ridiculously restrictive.

According to documents filed Thursday with the FCC, Zune has wireless networking abilities that once turned on, allow people to send and receive photos, as well as “promotional” copies of songs, albums and playlists. It sounds great, but the filing does not define “promotional copies”. I believe it is a term also known as “controlled sharing”, usually involving a few selected songs with a time limit of how long you can keep them.

Two interesting notes here. First, the iPod hard disk has long been built by Toshiba; how do they avoid non-compete problems? Second, the Gigabeat S, Toshiba’s own MP3 player recently beat the iPod in a CNET Prizefight, winning in all categories. So, really, it’s three-pronged dominance for the Japanese behemoth.