Disclaimer: I was provided with a month’s free trial for the Zune service. I am not a member of the press, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and got one for free. Anyone can (currently) sign up for a 14-day trial through the Zune website. I have not received any other payment or service to write this blog post.
I wanted to post this early-on, whilst my impressions were still vivid. I’ve only activated my Zune Pass today and wanted to write down my initial thoughts. I plan on following up this blog post soon after I’ve had a better play with the service.
The beginning: Spotify
For a couple of years now I’ve been an avid user of Spotify. Not only an avid user, but I’ve vocalised the virtues of their service to a large number of people, both within the software development arena and outside.
Spotify’s business model suited me. I created a number of playlists, broadly categorised by genre, and would typically listen to them through large headphones whilst trying to drown out the normal office banter. However, I’ve always used Spotify Free. I always found the adverts relevant, clever and – some – exceptionally geolocalised. I didn’t mind them for the sake of legally listening to music.
However, over the past few months it’s become more apparent that adaptations to Spotify’s business model were not moving in the same direction as my music consumption habits:
The end result of Spotify’s shift in direction was them stopping their free service on the 1st of May. I’m not going to attempt to qualify why this happened, just that it did. Their new “free” service means a maximum of 10 hours per month, 5 unique plays of each song. Ever. So if I am quite happy listening to Bat Out Of Hell, I can listen to it 5 times in total and then no more. Even with one of the really-long edits, you’d be pushing to get an hour of listening. With adverts, of course. Effectively to use their service in the way which works for me, I now have to pay. And that’s fine, because that’s their business model.
The result of their approach is that their service now has to compete with other subscription-based models out there, most notably for me being Microsoft’s Zune service. All of these services differ slightly in price and functionality, but basically they boil down to you paying a monthly rental fee to be able to listen to music that you may not already own. The caveat is that you never own these tracks and they become unusable once you stop paying your subscription fee (I am aware that in the US you get to permanently keep a number of tracks per month – that isn’t the case in the UK).
In addition to their new “open” model, Spotify have two pay-for options:
- Spotify Unlimited (£4.99 per month)
Unlimited streaming of music, no adverts
- Spotify Premium (£9.99 per month)
Unlimited streaming of music, no adverts, plus offline track availability and access from a mobile device
Microsoft’s Zune service has one pay-for option: £8.99 per month for unlimited streaming of music and no adverts. Once you have a Zune Pass, it can be used from a number of devices logged in with the same Windows Live ID (it looks like 3 PCs, plus an unknown number of other devices); that is any PC with the Zune software, any Windows Phone, or any XBox. Microsoft also offer some discounted pricing if you pre-purchase more than one month at a time. At the time of writing this gave approximately a 10% discount if you pre-purchased a year rather than paying month-by-month.
The Future? Microsoft Zune
Forget the Zune devices, this is different
In the US, Microsoft had a number of Zune devices. These devices made a small impact upon the exploding iPod market but never got them any significant market share. But forget those devices because the Zune name is all that ties the two together; Zune is now Microsoft’s overarching brand for entertainment consumption, whether that be movies or music, through pretty much any of their devices.
On the PC
The Zune desktop software is available for PCs running XP SP3 upwards (so that includes Vista and Windows 7), the Zune software is what powers the Music and Movies hub on Windows Phone 7, and the Zune service is what powers music and movie (playback and rental) through the XBox 360. All of these services are tied together through Windows Live. As the main graphic on the Zune website insinuates, this really is the “three screen” service they’ve been trying to push for the past few years.
What’s virtually impossible to get across in words is the fluidity in the interface. Whilst I’ve used the Zune software on occasion to sync my Windows Phone, I hadn’t seen their Now Playing screen before using the Zune Pass and it’s a marvel. If you’ve ever used Windows Media Centre then you’ll be aware of the album art wall that scrolls album art behind now-playing music. The version within Zune is like that but on steroids; it’s a cross between that and a professionally-produced film. As the album art wall fades out, it’s replaced by subtly-moving pictures of the artists, fading professionally between shots. Whilst this happens, cleverly-faded text overlays the graphics at angles showing various information. It’s got to be seen to be believed. It’s far from the metro-inspired minimalistic take of Media Centre but it’s exceptionally consumer-orientated.
That said, the software itself is not without its failings. The navigation, once you first start the software, can be confusing confusing. Zune Pass blurs the line between which tracks are your own and which have been downloaded (but you’ll lose if/when you stop the Zune Pass). With a track listing of hundreds (if not thousands), I’m not sure what the Quick Play tab is really useful for. I end up going straight for the Collection (which allows me to access my current albums) or the MarketPlace to get new tracks via Zune Pass.
On Windows Phone 7
Having extolled the virtues of the graphical interface within the desktop application, the Windows Phone client is a much more pedestrian affair. This may change with the upcoming mango release, but at the moment it’s primarily based around lists of tracks arranged by artist, album or genre, or discovered through searches. The sound playback is good although arguably highly dependent upon both the device you’re using and the quality of headphones.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a perfectly adequate music player – very akin to what I’ve seen of both iTunes and the iPhone Spotify application, but it’s missing the wow factor of the desktop application. But that’s not what makes me feel the phone version is missing a trick. What’s missing here is Smart DJ (see below) and, if you have a Zune Pass, it’s the one thing you’ll miss.
On the XBox
I can’t comment on the XBox as I don’t have one. I have a feeling that that’ll have to change one of these days, but not just yet.
The Zune service
Signup/Activation was very straight-forward. I simply logged onto the Zune website, logged in with my Windows Live ID, and clicked the “free Zune Pass trial” link. Once I’d activated that, I put in an additional code for a month’s Zune Pass. All went through simply, very straight-forward, and was greeted with a lovely “thank you” page afterwards.
Unfortunately, getting to use the Zune Pass wasn’t quite that straight-forward.
Like most people after a “purchase”, the first thing you want to do is to fire it up and have a play. Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple. After doing the above, the tracks/albums within the Zune software and the phone client were still only giving me preview/purchase options. Even after closing the software and logging in again I couldn’t get it to work. After logging out/in a few times, the Zune client asked me to agree to some new terms and conditions. I assume this was due to the newly-enabled Zune Pass. After this it was fine. The phone, however, required a reboot.
First impressions of the Marketplace
The Marketplace is very good. I searched for a number of new and older artists and found their music freely available, as well as full back-catalogues. The simplicity of clicking “download” next to an album, downloading it to my collection, then working with it in the same way as other files was very good. If you don’t want to search by album or artist specific album then you can choose to drill down by genre or go into “mixtapes” – very similar to Spotify’s shared playlists. However, let’s be honest, this was pretty much exactly the same as Spotify and other music services out there.
My moment of clarity – Smart DJ
Smart DJ is similar to iTunes’ Genius system. There’ve been a number of articles that compare Smart DJ to iTunes’ Genius so I’ll not go into that in too much detail, just to say that the power that the Zune Pass brings this technology is fantastic.
Simply choose any song, artist or album and select “Smart DJ”. Smart DJ will automatically create you a playlist of similar tracks combining both the music you own and music it will automatically stream down to your computer. If you like the playlist, clicking a couple of buttons will allow you to download it en-mass for future use.
Out and about
I don’t use music out and about much. A combination of two young children and the fact I don’t use public transport to/from work means that my time spent in a situation where I can listen to music is minimal. However, I plan a follow-up blog post and I’ll try and find a way to use it.
What I asked myself was “Do I listen to that much music?”. £8.99 about the same as the cost of an album per month, which is exceptionally good value for money for the literally endless amount of music that I could listen to for that amount. Let me put it in context: if I have my headphones on for 5 hours per day, 5 days a week then that’s 100 hours – give or take – per month. At 9p per hour, that’s far better value than virtually any other entertainment medium.
Using these services, however, what do I end up with? If I pay for a year then it costs around £90. If I then stop paying, I have nothing. I have no new music. To my knowledge, at least in the UK, this is the same for all equivalent services. Note that this is different in the US on Zune where you can choose to keep 10 songs every month. If this was available in the UK then this would be a huge stick with which to beat Spotify (which has major market share).
Will I subscribe and, if so, with whom?
Well, the “with whom” option is a clear winner. For me, with the devices I have, Spotify does not work in the way I would like. That’s not a criticism of their service at all but, even with a Windows Phone client, their service would only provide exactly the same functionality as Zune, but at £1 per month dearer. For me, Zune is a clear winner. It works with the devices I have (say what you want about what that means about me!), and it works well. I’m really willing to try Spotify again when they have a Windows Phone client, if I have the option.
Will I subscribe? I don’t know. The quality, quantity and ubiquity of the service – for probably significantly less than 9p per hour – can’t be argued with. I keep asking myself the same question, though: for the way in which I listen to music, does this subscription model work for me? If I could keep 10 tracks per month then there’d be no question – I’d immediately subscribe. For me, that’s probably the number of new tracks that I want to keep each month. I would effectively be able to sample music wherever I went but choose each set that I wanted and keep it. It would be a have-your-cake-and-eat-it scenario.
But have Microsoft missed a trick?
Hands up if you’re a developer. Keep your hand up if you often put your headphones on and listen to music in order to concentrate. I’ll bet that’s a large chunk of the first batch. I’ve seen this a lot, particularly in small companies where development departments are not detached from other business functions such as sales. So much so that I’ve started to hear about companies offering subscriptions to streaming music services – such as Spotify or Zune Pass – as perks for developers.
Bearing in mind the literally thousands of Microsoft Partners that it has already subscribed, how easy would it be for Microsoft to roll out a “Zune Pass (Microsoft Partner Subscription)” for a reduced rate. Companies could easily manage access to the system in a similar way to MSDN/Partner entitlements and be charged on a SPLA-style basis.
I still have a couple of weeks left on the Zune Pass. I’ll continue to trial it and hopefully write a follow-up post when I’ve decided what to do.