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Roving music magnets

September 18, 2006

MICROSOFT ANNOUNCED ITS much-anticipated digital music player last week, and pundits started debating whether the so-called iPod killer could compete with Apple's market-dominating products. A better question is whether Zune represents the next wave of change in the music industry.

Due in November, Zune is one of a handful of new portable players that can connect wirelessly to each other or the Internet, enabling people to share songs and playlists. Some, such as the players from start-up MusicGremlin, let subscribers download any song in the company's massive library of tunes wherever they can find a public WiFi connection.

These are small steps forward compared to the iPod, which helped transform the music industry by enabling people to carry their entire music collection in their pockets. Similarly, Apple's iTunes store and software sparked a revolution in music sales by promoting individual songs, not albums, as the preferred unit to experience music. The new devices' immediate impact is likely to be social -- enabling people to play DJ for their friends or introduce them to new artists. Some of the new players (though not Zune) also let people scroll through and copy songs on other devices nearby, even if they're held by strangers. This promises the ability to tap into not just your own collection but those of the people around you.

Over a longer term, wireless connections could drive more significant changes. Imagine walking into a music store and, with your permission, having the network there scan your device and beam you free samples that match your tastes. Bands could load up fans' devices at concerts, as could DJs at clubs. In other words, the players could become roving magnets for music. Alternatively, by enabling people to play whatever songs they wish from an online jukebox wherever there's a WiFi hot spot, the devices could boost music-by-subscription services that sell access to songs, not the songs themselves. That would be a fundamental shift away from the 99-cents-per-track model, which is simply the latest twist on the traditional approach to selling music.

The effect of these devices will rest largely on the quality of the experience they deliver, not the ideas behind them. And even if Microsoft does all the basics well, the wireless capabilities that differentiate Zune will be worthless to consumers until a bunch of their acquaintances buy Zunes too. Still, the idea of a music player that's always connected to other players and the Web holds much promise for music fans, even if Zune doesn't manage to knock the iPod off its pedestal.

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