Zune software = Windows Media Player (too bad…)

November 17, 2006

I finally got my review copy of Microsoft’s new Zune player. I saw a demo of the hardware about a month ago and liked it perfectly well, but was withholding judgment until I saw the software.

Well, at least I didn’t have installation problems like the good folks at Engadget. But it’s clear that, despite what the Zune people told me, the Zune software is essentially a skinned version of Windows Media Player 11.

Now, I was prepared to believe this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing–the new Windows Media Player is significantly easier to use and more appealing than the older versions. But the Zune software suffers from one of my biggest complaints with past versions of the Media Player: it totally mangles metadata. (Metadata is the data describing your content, which is what allows the software to display the album name, artist name, genre, and so on.)

I’m a bit of an odd case because I’ve got more than 2,000 songs from two different sources. The majority are songs I ripped from a CD directly into iTunes. Several hundred, however are songs that I recorded from a vinyl LP record using the Analog Recorder feature in Microsoft’s Digital Media Plus Pack. These are Windows Media Audio (WMA) tracks. Then, I allowed iTunes to convert these tunes to Apple’s format (Advanced Audio Coding, or AAC) so they could play on my iPod.

The Zune software didn’t like this. In most instances, it offered me duplicate versions of some–but not all–of the songs on albums I ripped. That makes some sense–it was reading the WMA versions from my MyMusic library and the AAC versions from iTunes. But when I eliminated the AAC versions (which are at a lower bitrate and therefore lower quality) it couldn’t figure out that all these songs were from the same album. So, for example, I had two versions of Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. The first contained the first six songs (side 1 on the record), which were WMA files from the LP. The second contained the second five songs (side 2), which were the converted AAC files from iTunes. (I have no idea why it didn’t just pull all the WMA files.) It did this even though the album title was the same on all of 11 songs, even though the song titles matched the titles in Microsoft’s online database of every album ever recorded, even though I dragged and dropped the songs to the same album image.

Weirder yet, when I reopened the software a few hours later, it had “figured out” the problem and now had all the songs in one place. I have no idea how this happened.

There were other instances of mangling metadata. All my Beastie Boys CDs were ripped directly into iTunes. They showed up just fine in the Zune software on the PC. But for some reason, I ended up with two indexes of all my Beastie Boys songs on the actual Zune player. One was a list of songs, in alphabetical order, listed under the heading “The Beastie Boys.” One was a list of the albums, listed under the heading “Beastie Boys.” The reason? Because the Windows Media Player designers, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that they need two almost identical fields: “Artist” and “Album Artist.” The “Artist” field, it populated with “The Beastie Boys,” which was how it had been listed in iTunes. The “Album Artist,” it auto-populated with “Beastie Boys,” which it drew from its own database. The only solution–manually select all the songs, change one field so it’s the same as the other.

Then there was album art. Sometimes, when the software couldn’t figure out what album it was looking at, it wouldn’t download the album art. So there’s a neat-sounding feature called “Update album info,” which connects to the Microsoft music database, checks your songs against the songlist on the database, and uploads all the proper information. Unfortunately, it also changes any fields that you’ve customized. Now, with iTunes, I usually create my own genres–I refuse to classify Godspeed You Black Emperor with the meaningless term “Alternative.” They’re a nine-piece instrumental band with mostly stringed instruments. So I classified their albums under “Ambient.” But when I tried to retrieve the album art for one of their albums, the Zune software reclassified it for me. Annoying.

Mutliply these niggling little problems times 2,000 songs and you can imagine what a pain in the ass this is.

The verdict: they better figure a better way to integrate iTunes libraries, or they have no chance of converting a single iPod user.


Microsoft to pay Zune spiffs to Universal

November 9, 2006

This seemingly innocuous agreement, under which Microsoft pays a fe dollars to Universal Music Group (one of the Big Four record companies) every time it sells one of its ZUne portable media devices, could actually grow into something really groundbreaking and important.

The music industry’s current approach is a dead end. DRM is fundamentally flawed technically (there’s no third-party attacker–you must eventually present the content to the person you’re trying to protect it against) and from a business perspective (users pay more to get less). File-sharing is gradually gaining more legal protection everywhere but the United States (which is irrelevant given the global scope of the Internet). CD retailers are going out of business. Consumers are learning to hate the record companies, who sue them and try to take over their computers with malicious software.

Many observers, myself included, believe that the better way forward for the music industry is a pooled-payment system for digital distribution. Add a few bucks added to the sale price of every digital media app or device, and perhaps even to monthly ISP bills. Then, some sort of tracking system could track how many times particular files are uploaded, duplicated, played, etc., and payments disbursed accordingly. Shawn Fanning (Napster founder) is trying to build a business based around this idea but hasn’t had many takers yet.

Microsoft is going ahead and doing it anyway with Zune. Short run, this gives UMG a stake in Zune’s success, and could get them to agree to steps such as eliminating the “3 days, 3 plays restriction” for Zune-to-Zune transfer, allowing Zune-PC-Xbox transfers, enabling the rumored “DJ mode” (broadcast to Zunes within range), subscription-based anytime-anywhere wireless access to millions of songs (the music lover’s dream), and so on.

Long run, if everybody follows suit, this could create a much friendlier world for digital music–consumers aren’t burdened by arbitrary and annoying restrictions, content owners get some compensation instead of nothing (as is the case with piracy).

Are you tone deaf?

November 7, 2006

I guess I’m a poseur–I only scored 77.8% when I took this test.