Coming Zune

Once again, Microsoft is chasing Apple in the hipster hardware game. Will it make sweet music this time?

Allard emerged from his sabbatical with a rather grandiose epiphany: "Technology was going to change entertainment forever." Returning to Microsoft, he looked around for a platform to prove his point, and eventually settled on videogames. This was another case of Microsoft playing catchup; Sony had by then cornered the videogame market. But Allard went in fighting and came out with Xbox, a system boasting state-of-the-art graphics, imaginative games, and a wildly enthusiastic fan base.

"It finally was a device that was cool that had Microsoft's name on it," says Charles Cross.

Now Allard is trying to transfer some of the lessons learned while creating Xbox to the music field.

Lesson 1: Know Your Customer. To create a mass product, Microsoft can't design products for the "Blue Badgers," as Microsofties call themselves (their ID passes are blue). So Allard has an unusual recurring event scheduled into his calendar. "Once a month," he says, "I go to Target. I get a corn dog, walk the aisles, and listen to customers."

Lesson 2: Always Think About the Artist. This is a subversive concept at Microsoft, which has always snubbed its nose at so-called content providers. But Allard insists that content, not software, is now king. And he says it has to be "tomorrow's content, not yesterday's content."

To this end, one of the first calls the Zune team made was to Seattle's Sub Pop Records, where Microsoft explained its intention to preload the device with 25 music and video selections, ones that would surprise and intrigue users.

"They were very, very interested in small bands," Tony Kiewel, Sub Pop's head of A&R, says of the Zune people. "They walked in the door really in love with one band — and their record hadn't even come out yet." That band was CSS, a punk-influenced Brazilian group of four women and a man.

"We're just starting out. We want to be with those just starting out," explains Allard. "In some ways, we're the little guy. We're the independent label. Never mind that the company is ginormous. In the music space, we're nobody." He reminds himself of this fact in his cubicle at Microsoft, where a huge poster for iPod hangs right beside a 1982 Time cover featuring Apple founder Steve Jobs.

"Look, I've got a Mac on my desk," says Zune marketing head Chris Stephenson, a trim 45-year-old whose fashion accessories include a black studded belt and sneakers, no socks. "It looks great. It looks fantastic. I've got a video iPod ready to go." He reaches into a drawer and pulls one out. The iPod is ever-so-slightly lighter and sleeker than the Zune prototype, which is packaged in a similar box and features a round navigational tool, a larger video screen, and Wi-Fi hardware.

These Wi-Fi capabilities allow Zune to take a swing at what Stephenson says are "many, many chinks" in iPod's armor. In addition to its focus on new music, the Zune team is playing around with the notion of community, hyping something it calls "connected entertainment."

"It's about being online and sharing your favorite playlist — at the school cafeteria and on the ski lift," says Stephenson, alluding to an online store, like iTunes, that will be connected to Zune. In the near future, Microsoft plans to add broadcasting functions that will allow Zune users to act as DJs, allowing random, nearby users of the device to tune in to what the DJs are playing, or letting the DJs specify their broadcasts for a group of users.

Zunesters, like all evangelical Microsofties, tend to get a little carried away when discussing their vision. Allard likes to say he thinks of iPod as "the Pong of digital music," referring to the elemental videogame from the Seventies. He spins tales about the way an intelligent Zune service will someday be able to record everything about every concert, album, and music video. Want to remember the playlist at a Kanye West concert after you get home? Want to know what he had for lunch that day? Want to hear him expand upon what was going through his head as he recorded a song? Then tap into Zune.

All of which gives Death Cab for Cutie's Nick Harmer mixed feelings. "I don't know how much more enriching music could be," he says. "It's really just about listening along, snapping your fingers. Are they going to start packaging the thing with free drugs next?"

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