News is just out that Microsoft’s Zune mp3 player, due out before Christmas to compete with Apple’s iPod, will have social networking capabilities, in addition to its core features of a 30GB disk and a 3 inch screen. Zune users will have the option of using the device’s inbuilt WiFi to send and receive music, playlists, videos, and photos to up to four other players. They can either broadcast these to any Zune player within range, or only to those of their selected friends. If they have the broadcast feature switched on, anyone permitted within range will be able to listen simultaneously to what they’re listening to.
This social networking feature, together with the device’s WiFi capabilities, is the only really significant feature difference to the iPod, and it is one that actually could shift users to the Microsoft player. Particularly for young people, music is fundamental to their identity and relationships, and sharing music is truly at the heart of their social networks. Sharing around musical preferences was the initial premise behind MySpace, and while it has gone quite a bit beyond this, it was the seed and still is at the centre of the largest human social network ever to exist. However I have a few concerns about how the feature is implemented on the Zune. One is that broadcasting to four people is not enough to really enable true social networks. It makes it a little bit more a gimmick than a feature to have it so limited in scope, though it can still act as a social glue for smaller groups. Another issue is probably related, in that WiFi is very energy-hungry. I have not seen any figures on battery life with WiFi turned on, but I suspect that the device won’t be able to last very long while it is broadcasting music, making it far less mobile. It may take, sometime down the track, the use of fuel cells or alternative wireless technologies for this kind of music social networking to be a broadly used application. A final issue is that, given this is Microsoft, we know that there will be solid Digital Rights Management (DRM) in place. In fact the release specifically says that people will be able to share “promotional copies” of songs, which will be just a fraction of what people have available on their players. Given these factors, the question remains whether this feature will prove to be a key differentiator for the Zune here in an extremely competitive marketplace, but I don’t doubt that mobile musical social networking will get massive uptake at the right time, when it’s done right.