In a bid to steal the spotlight from Apple's new iPod lineup, Microsoft has just launched free software to convert every Zune player in the company's current product lineup -- including a new device with 120GB of storage capacity -- into a wireless-savvy music machine.
During Zune's initial design, Microsoft engineers created a platform that can be updated through the release of software upgrades, noted Brian Seitz, Microsoft's group marketing manager for Zune.
"We made an early bet with the FM player and wireless capabilities of the device," Seitz explained. "Now we can build on those hardware features by delivering great software."
FM Radio Game Changer
Users equipped with the Zune 3.0 software update can download music directly to their players, either over a home wireless network or through Wi-Fi hotspots at more than 9,800 McDonald's restaurants in the U.S., courtesy of Internet access provider Wayport. Zune aficionados will be able to purchase the popular tunes played by their favorite FM radio stations.
Microsoft's Zune 3.0 software release matches data already embedded within the signals of many FM radio stations -- called RDS and RT+ feeds -- with the four million songs available from the Zune Marketplace. Users simply click on any song they hear to instantly tag and purchase it.
"This Zune technology puts two things together that have been dying to get together for years -- discovery of new music on FM radio and the purchase of music, which is getting to be more and more digital," said Jeff Littlejohn, an executive vice president at Clear Channel Radio.
Littlejohn also notes that Clear Channel, which owns 450 U.S. stations enabled for RDS feeds, is working with other broadcasters to further standardize the technology.
"We see this as an industry coalition," Littlejohn explained. "This needs to be ubiquitous to reach its potential, and Zune brings so much depth to the game, since it's so connected and focused on the listener."
Zune 3.0 also integrates a new social-networking capability that automatically relays the user's most up-to-date personal playlist to designated friends whenever the player is within range of a compatible wireless network.
Playlists called "instant collections" enable users to more easily explore specific music themes and genres, or even choose from a list of available audiobooks. The Marketplace tab on the player's menu screen instantly connects users to top songs and recommendations from the Zune editorial staff.
"You can search for an artist and download anything from the marketplace, but we also have this great editorial team plugged into the industry, and we're finding ways to plug them into the community, too," Seitz said.
Microsoft intends to introduce a new "channels" feature that the software giant describes as a hybrid between a playlist and a podcast, to which users can subscribe. The Billboard Top 100 chart, Fader magazine, KROQ in Los Angeles, and KEXP in Seattle are just a few of the brand-name offerings expected to be on tap.
Prospective Zune buyers are being given a wide range of players to choose from. The Zune player lineup ranges from an entry-level device with 4GB of storage to a new model featuring a 120GB hard drive, which Microsoft says is capable of storing up to 30,000 songs, 25,000 pictures, or a 375 hours of video.