Zunes Expand, Add Wi-Fi Buying and Tagging

Microsoft has announced two new members of its Zune portable media player lineup—a $199 16 GB flash version and a $249.99 120 GB hard-drive based version—along with a software update that will enable all Zunes (new and old!) to tag and purchase songs directly from the built-in FM radio, as well as access the Zune Marketplace via Wi-Fi.

“Digital music services really come alive when they help people find not only the music they know they like, but the music they didn’t know they would love,” said Microsoft’s general manager of Zune global marketing Chris Stephenson, in a statement. “With the combination of subscription, wireless access to millions of tracks, and powerful discovery features like personal recommendations and the ability to buy music from FM radio, Zune is taking the digital music experience to the next level.”

Microsoft cites a Kelton Research study from earlier this year which found that 61 percent of music listeners say they find new music by listening to the radio. So, the new Zune software update will include a Buy from FM feature, which enables users to tag and purchase songs they hear over the radio. The system uses Radio Data System and RT+ data feeds embedded within many broadcast FM stations to identify the current track and artist; if the Zune user is within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot the song and be purchased and downloaded immediately (assuming it is available via the Zune Marketplace…a reasonably safe bet for mainstream pop radio). If no Wi-Fi is available, the Zune will save a queue of tagged songs and download them the next time the user hooks the Zune up to a computer or connects to a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Zune customers can either buy music on a per-track basis or purchase a $14.99 per month Zune Pass that lets users download or stream music to their Zunes or PC so long as their subscription remains current.

The Zune software update will also add channels and personal picks to the onlein Zune service. Channels enable users to check out pre-fab channels of new music or channels aimed at specific tastes or tasks, as well create their own channels to share with other Zune users. Personal picks are tracks and artists suggested by the “Zune recommendation algorithm” based on music and channels a user listens to, as well as the music tastes of similar listeners.

Microsoft will roll out the new Zune software September 18, 2008; the new 16 GB and 120 GB Zunes theoretically go on sale the same date, but they’re already popping up at some retail outlets.

The timing of Microsoft’s announcement isn’t a coincidence—Apple is widely expected to roll out new iPods tomorrow—and it’s somewhat ironic that buying-via-WI-Fi is a feature Apple introduced over a year ago in the original iPhone and iPod touch. The significance of FM tagging is sort of an unknown: although some segment of music listeners no doubt discover new music via FM, and some no doubt prefer Zunes to iPods because the former include an FM receiver…lack of FM capability doesn’t seem to have impeded the iPod from dominating the personal music player market. Existing Zune owners may find the new features a nice bonus, but they may not be the sort of selling points that win the Zune new converts.

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