The end is coming, Zune

Like many Apple fans (and stockholders, modest as my shares may be), I’ve been watching the Zune launch with some interest. On one hand, I root for my favorite team, but then Microsoft is, for me, the home team. I have many friends who work “at a large company on the Eastside”, as the euphemism goes in Seattle, and without exception they are very smart, interesting people. I would like the Zune to really succeed just as I’d like Microsoft to continue to succeed. Just like I hope that Vista is really a contender. Heck, competition is good for Apple.

But the Zune is another piece of marketing and design fluff crammed into a shallow attempt to capture revenue from a pre-existing market. There are two things that really bother me about it.

The first is that the Zune counts a song as played when you begin to play it. On the iPod (and with iTunes) the count happens at the end of a song. I suppose this opens a philosophical debate on when in a song’s playing does the it turn into the past tense ‘played’? For iTunes the question was any easy one: it’s played when it’s done playing. But Microsoft had to put the playcount near the beginning of the song (David Pogue reports it at the 1-minute mark. What if you beam a song by the Minutemen?). Why? Because if it were at the end, then I could listen to a whole song nearly to the end, and then skip to the next song, thus finding an easy workaround to the “3 plays or 3 days” limitation. Never mind that the song will be erased in 3 days anyway, Microsoft is more interested in acting like a drug dealer and tempting me with a melody and withdrawing it than it is in giving me a function that might benefit me.

The second is the yet-unconfirmed but hinted at referral program. I have a huge problem with referral program’s in general, although I know this puts me in the minority. I am voracious music consumer. I have been since I stopped buying comics with my allowance and started buying used vinyl at age 13. Most of the bands I like exist on word of mouth, and I like to talk about them with friends. How can any friend of mine trust my recommendation for a song or album if they know I’m going to get a kickback? If I’m good at it and I start making a lot of money, won’t that make me a little more eager to recommend a song I know will sell well, over one I actually like?

It’s this commercialization of relationships that I find the most disturbing. It doesn’t bother very many people in the marketing profession who tend to view users as stats, but it’s a big problem for a cynical idealist like me who, while tempted by the idea of a little extra cash (I have some Amazon links on this site that are affiliated, but should, and will, be better identified in the future), is seriously concerned about the idea that every relationship will be about the money.

But to me it feels like the Zune is a no-go. From the interface, designed to look cool instead of solve a problem (if you’d ever like to kill a good design, start with that intention), to the wrapping non-encrypted MP3’s in a 3-or-3 DRM wrapper (what if I want to legally share the latest Escape Pod?), it’s another case of Microsoft focusing on marketing when they should instead put their prodigious talent and resources into solving new problems and creating markets that they can then dominate. They should take for their new slogan the line that Shawn Wolfe put on a poster for Remover-Installer “The general gloss of falsity is our only product.”

Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: November 9, 2006 11:07 AM
comments
When I listen to podcasts on my iPod, I find they get "marked as played" if I even play just a few seconds of them. It's really annoying, because it means I can't sync the iPod without iTunes removing the track (I've got it set to take off "listened to" podcasts), even though I haven't gotten more than a few seconds in. So, is this a divergence between how iTunes treats podcasts vs. regular songs, or do I just have the "sucker" preference set? This has been bugging me in iTunes/iPod for a long time, so I find it ironic to hear it lambasted as a Zune defect.
Zune seems more like a fulcrum for Microsoft's marketing interests than a response to consumer needs...
Daniel: I've not noticed that with podcasts, although I have mine set the same way. I notice it mostly in iTunes where I have an "unplayed music" playlist. If iTunes plays a song I don't like or want to listen to, I can't just skip it -- it won't increment the play count. I need to move to the end of the song and play the last second or so. So, this may be the difference between "playcount" and "played/unplayed."

Daniel: I have encountered (and been frustrated by) the same problem. It's nice to hear I'm not alone.

I've discovered a viable workaround. It seems that iTunes and the iPod have differing notions of what constitutes "played". The iPod considers a podcast "played" when playback starts. iTunes considers a podcast "played" when it reaches the end of the podcast, even if it clears the "unplayed" flag in the song-list display.

The way of keeping podcasts from evaporating before I've finished listening to them is therefore to configure iTunes to keep all unplayed podcasts, and then tell the iPod to sync all podcasts (or, if you prefer, the 'n' most recent ones).

In other words, leave all decisions about what's "played" or "unplayed" to iTunes, and not the iPod.

I hope this helps.

If you would've done a little reasearch on the topic, you'd have found out that a song is marked as "listened to" after 60 seconds has elapsed or the end of the song has been reached.

John: I did mention that it marks the song at one minute, after reading that in Pogue's column. I did not know that it was an either or (as in, it's either 1 minute or the end of the song), so I guess faced with your criticism I must retract my joke about the Minutemen. My apologies to the family of D. Boon.

Just out of curiosity, though, where did you read such specs? I looked all around zune.net and they seem to be a little thin on text explaining the DRM limitations.

Interesting about the Play Counts feature. As a long time user of the Audioscrobbler/Last.FM service I've always though quite highly of more 'intelligent' song counting.

iTunes method of counting only when the file ends is flawed as I can't skip the fade-out (or crowd noise, in some cases) and still gain the stat. The Last.FM protocol specifies that songs get submitted to the webservice once they're 2/3 the way in. For me that's optimal. 60 seconds on the Zune sounds too short, but might offer a more accurate play counting mechanism (even if the motives are elsewhere).

Of course, I hear the Zune doesn't support any concept of Smart Playlists yet, making the recording of play counts (by any method) utterly useless anyway.

With regards to the point about about Podcasts being marked read (another problem absent from the Zune by incomprehensible design, huh huh), is it not the case that there's a difference between the Podcast's 'listened to' status and the file's 'Play count'?

Oh well, roll on the 2G Zune then.

A song is marked as played on the Zune after 1 minute or half-way through, whichever comes first. I read that here: http://ptech.wsj.com/ptech.html and somewhere else as well, but I can't find that link.
Dan, I tried your workaround and it does not solve the problem. YIt still marks podcast episodes as played even if only listened to for 5 seconds. Steve
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