17 February 2011

Looking Back from the Future of Music (Zune edition)

We've had a Microsoft Zune Pass subscription for over a year. Zune Marketplace is one of the biggest subscription services out there, with about 11 million songs. For $15/mo. you get unlimited "rented" downloads on up to three Zune-compatible devices, and streaming on any PC, plus 10 free tracks/mo. to keep forever. The file quality is great, with 192 kbit/s WMA for streaming and 320 kbit/s MP3s for purchase. The selection is basically comprehensive for the major labels and decent-to-good for indies.

The Zune Marketplace collection is big enough to scratch most itches, and allows you to dig pretty deep with even narrower interests. Here is a selection test I did a while back: There are thirty-five recordings known to me of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, my favorite choral work. Many have been issued on tiny, obscure labels and/or are out of print as CDs. But at least twenty-one of these are available on Zune Marketplace. If you like Gaga or Cee-Lo Green, Zune of course easily has you covered. But even if your tastes are more esoteric, like mine, you are well served. It goes a long way towards putting a universal library of music in your pocket.

The Zune software is great, much better than iTunes. Tani has had a Zune HD for quite a while and has loved it. I just got myself one, finally, and it is the bomb. Best Player Ever, especially at current prices. Great build, great sound, and the best interface on any player. The only thing slightly lacking is its wi-fi performance, but if this were the last music player I ever owned, I'd be just fine. I'd been waiting for the rumored Zune HD2 to come out, but am skeptical now that it ever will. The Zune brand, I just read today, is probably on its way out, at least under that name. The Zune staff has already been reassigned. Future Zune players will either disappear entirely or live on in a different form (as phones or, maybe, portable gaming devices).

And that's the future of portable music players, it seems. Convergence. Nobody wants to own two or three devices (phone, mp3 player, portable gaming device, whatever) when one will do. And everybody already has a phone. Sadly, premium music players are on their way out, as greater segmentation and adoption in the multifunction phone market effectively replaces them. I totally buy the rumors of an iPhone mini.

But subscription music services, and their fantastic value, will keep growing. And what a value. The three of us in our family have played 31,469 tracks on Zune in the past 14 months. If my math is right, that means each play has cost us $0.015, a penny and a half. Even my most-played CD has cost me many times that per play. At retail cost ($15), that means a 1000 tracks would have to be played from a CD to equal the value. Only free would be better. Like Pandora. And in fact, I think the girls would be pretty happy if all they had was Pandora. You can see where this is going . . .

And book publishers still want to charge me $15 to read one of their ebooks once?

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