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In the Zune Zone

3:45 PM -- The Zune, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s new digital music player, has been out for a week now, and the reviews are decidedly mixed. The weight (a hefty six ounces), drab color scheme (gray, brown, and white), and lack of video-purchase capability have all been cited by negative reviewers as reasons this "iPod killer" will likely appeal mostly to anti-Macintosh users (as in, people over 35).

Even the Zune's primary selling point -- the ability to transfer tunes to other Zunes over a WiFi connection, which the marketing pinheads at Microsoft are calling "squirting" (eee-eww) -- is rendered lame by the fact that you can only "lend" songs for three plays. Another matador's wave at copyright protection as the raging bull of file-sharing thunders past.

The devices don’t seem to be flying off the shelves. The Best Buy store in midtown Manhattan sold only about 20 units in the first three hours they were available, according to Fox News. Hardly a definitive trend, but still...

Anyway, there's another reason Zune will not unseat the iPod anytime soon, and it's embodied in the new Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) store just opened in the new Twenty Ninth Street mall here in Boulder.

Being over 35 myself, I was having trouble with some of the features on my own iPod Nano (specifically, the fact that it doesn't charge when plugged into a computer that's in sleep mode, and that I can't add my playlists to my wife's iPod without completely wiping her tunes off of it -- both major design flaws in my book, but Steve Jobs, apparently, is not listening to me). I walked into the Apple store and made an appointment online with an Apple-store "Genius" at the "iPod Bar" to go over my symptoms.

The store itself is a triumph of gleaming minimalist design. You feel as if you're floating on some higher plane where everyone is smart and stylish, and the color scheme is totally monochromatic -- sorta like the "heaven" scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I was welcomed by a "Genius" named Gabe (OK, the Genius moniker is hokey), who went over the features with me, restored the entire OS on my iPod with updated software for free, and offered to just replace the unit if I continued having trouble. A follow-up appointment with someone else was nearly as helpful, and I learned a couple of shortcuts in the process that I would likely never have stumbled onto on my own. In general, despite the fact that I felt compelled to drop another 30 bucks on a wall-charger, the experience was quick, painless, and left me feeling good about owning an iPod. (My favorite new add to my music library, in case anyone's interested, is the Posies' downbeat cover of the great Psychedelic Furs tune "Love My Way.")

Now close your eyes and try to imagine Microsoft, or your local Best Buy, providing that kind of post-sale customer service.

Can't do it, can you?

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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