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.



October 25, 2006

It’s the fifth anniversary of the iPod, giving the press plenty of excuse to write another “Franco’s still dead” story about the phenomenon of our time. Slate has two today, one about how the iPod isn’t revolutionary but merely an evolution of the Walkman, and another about how combination phone-musicplayers such as Nokia’s new N91 will knock the iPod off its perch.

Both miss a really important point: it’s the software, not the hardware! MP3 players predate the iPod by several years. There are literally dozens of Windows Media-based players that are cheaper and offer more features than the iPod. Why have they all failed against the iPod? Sure, the white shiny box looks cool, and the font in the UI reminds people of their first computer (which was a Mac…unless you were a programmer or a masochistic DOS devotee). But the real advantage comes from the iTunes software that iPodders use to collect songs from the hard drive, acquire them from Apple’s online store, arrange them into playlists, and transfer them to the device. It’s simple, attractive, intuitive, and works correctly. The Windows Media Player, as every 20-year-old knows, sucks in comparison.

This fact completely sinks Slate’s article about the N91. The author, a Mac user, probably hasn’t had much experience with the Windows Media Player, as he breezily states “PC users can get even smoother integration—the N91 connects directly to Windows Media Player without the need for an external application.”

But the other thing that this guy and all the other writers who’ve proposed that the musicphone will kill the iPod are missing: convergence never works. Over and over and over, consumers have shown that they would rather buy multiple devices, each of which does one thing well, than a single device that does nothing well. When I reach down to skip a song, I don’t want to accidentally dial my mom. When I want to call my friend Barry, I don’t want to start playing a Barry White song. No matter if the UI designers are geniuses, a combination device is by nature too confusing, and the “sacrifice” of carrying two devices isn’t really a sacrifice at all.

That’s not even getting into the business side of it. Carriers want you to buy their ridiculously overpriced songs directly over the air from their stores and charge you extra data fees for doing so, not buy them from an online store and transfer them to your PC. So they’ll be reluctant to stock these things. So they don’t want to stock any phone that actually duplicates the functionality of an iPod. Even if Apple comes out with the rumored iPhone, probably they won’t have agreements with all the carriers–will I really want to switch my coverage from Verizon to Cingular just so I can get a combo device? No. I want the best phone with the best coverage for making phone calls, and the best music player with the best features for playing music.

If Apple’s really expecting to sell 25 million iPhones next year, they’re smoking crack.

The kids are alright

September 27, 2006

Visiting my in-laws in Eastern Tennessee this week. Because I’m so old (going on 37!), I  like to check in with my nephew (20) and niece (12) to see what the real music fans are into. I suppose I’ve been reading about the iPod/MySpace generation for long enough that I shouldn’t be surprised, but they don’t have any affection for the Top 40 dance hits they play at the gym, and don’t really care what MTV or the radio plays.

My nephew’s a pretty big music fan. (I like to take some credit for taking him to a Sonic Youth [disclaimer: I don’t like them that much] concert and introducing him to my vinyl collection when he was 14.) So it’s not particularly surprising that alongside Green Day he’s got CDs and goes to shows by more obscure bands like Of Montreal. But the Captain Beefheart collection was seriously unexpected. So was Roger Waters’ recently completed opera, Ca Ira–even I don’t have that, and I’m about the most fanatic Waters and (old) Pink Floyd fan around. He checks his MySpace site every day and carries his U2 iPod (with radio tuner attached) 24-7. He asked me about the upcoming “Microsoft player” (Zune) and was interested in the wireless sharing capability, but his most interesting comment about it: “It doesn’t use the Windows Media Player, does it? I hate the Media Player, it totally sucks.” Looks like the Zune team made the right call by building its own software.

My niece has been through her Britney/Justin phase, but now that junior high has started, she’s  into pop bands with indie-rock stylings  like Snow Patrol (who have the #5 single in the country–who knew?) and Stone Sour. But more surprising is how music lingo has crept into her speech. She describes herself and her friends as “punk,” but she means simply that they’re outcasts who don’t dress like preppies, not that she listens to punk rock or wants a mohawk (although she does want bright-red hair). And when one of her friends begins putting on that air of teenage angst and depression, she says they’re going “emo.” Hilarious.

And I can’t remember the last time there were so many records on my “to buy” or “bought” lists in the Billboard Top 100. Bob Dylan, Outkast, Gnarls Barkley, TV on the Radio, The Roots, and Yo La Tengo. Wait long enough, and the mainstream will come to you.