Coming Zune

Microsoft shoots at the Apple again

"Wicked!" Richard Winn exclaims as he stands on Seattle Center's Broad Street Lawn during Bumbershoot, expressing appreciation for the French band Nouvelle Vague. "That's weird — I got goose bumps on that one." He pulls up the sleeve of his blue sweat jacket to prove it.

The bubbly 42-year-old British expatriate is a hard-core fanatic: He knows not only that "Love Will Tear Us Apart" — the song the band is covering — was first released in 1980 by Joy Division, but also that the name of the tune on the B-side was "These Days." No wonder: Winn has spent his entire adult life in the music business, first making cups of tea for UB40 in a Birmingham, England, recording studio before eventually moving to Los Angeles, where among various marketing and producing gigs he worked for Japanese rock star Yoshiki.

On this breezy end-of-summer evening, though, Winn is here on behalf of his new employer, Microsoft. Winn is head of artistic development for Microsoft's new device, dubbed Zune. His sortie is to integrate the device with the music scene, in part by promoting emerging artists, so he has been checking out music venues like mad since he moved to the area two and a half months ago.

Microsoftie J Allard wants to give iPod some competition.
Annie Marie Musselman
Microsoftie J Allard wants to give iPod some competition.

Microsoft hopes that its emphasis on the music itself, rather than just the gadget, will help set Zune apart from its dominant rival. The company is also loading Zune with a 50 percent larger screen than current iPods, as well as wireless capabilities that will allow users to send their favorite songs to other users with devices in proximity.

Yet even as Microsoft gets ready to release Zune in time for the holidays, Apple is grabbing attention with reports that the California-based company is about to offer downloadable movies that can be played on a new version of iPod featuring a larger screen. Microsoft says Zune will be compatible with any video formatted for an iPod or other media player. But the company is concentrating on music, which it believes makes more sense on a device that people use while jogging or riding their bikes. Still, even in the music space, Microsoft has its work cut out for it.

"This device, in my opinion, is make or break," says Seattle music author Charles Cross, whose books include a memoir of Jimi Hendrix. Cross notes that iPod has captured 75 percent of the music-player market in the United States. It has done so by forcefully laying claim to that elusive quality of cool — offering not only the ability to digitally access music but also a sleekness of design that has made the device a fashion accessory.

There was a moment in the early '90s when Microsoft was cool. Software was king, and Microsoft was the king of software. But then the dot-com bubble burst and the company lost ground, and rivals like Apple began producing sexier products.

In its quest to catch up to iPod, Microsoft has hired an army of musical-savvy folks. Like Winn, many players on the Zune team come from recording labels, radio stations, or other music companies. They include DJ Kyle "Kid Hops" Hopkins from KEXP-FM (operated by the University of Washington), and Chris Stephenson, another British expat who worked as an MTV vice president in Europe and as marketing head for House of Blues, the L.A.-based chain of clubs and concert spaces, before founding his own consulting firm.

The visionary behind Zune, however, is a native Microsoftie: 37-year-old J Allard, probably the one man at the company whose hipster credentials are unassailable.

Bearing a shaved head, an athletic build, and a taste for jackets by edgy fashion designer Marc Ecko, Allard joined Microsoft in 1991, and somewhere along the line shortened his first name, James, to simply J (no period). Allard's early claim to fame came soon after he arrived on the company's Redmond campus, during perhaps the first period when Microsoft found itself lagging behind the technological curve. Other companies were beginning to capitalize on the potential of the Internet, a platform of which Microsoft seemed only dimly aware. Having come to Microsoft with what he says was the aim of getting his mom on the Internet, the then-24-year-old cranked out a 20-page wake-up call memo. Originally sent to his direct supervisors, the memo made its way into the hands of Bill Gates. "It got around," Allard says.

Plugging away on the Internet for seven more years, Allard longed for a change. He took three months off and bought himself a bunch of techie toys, including a Sony PlayStation and a portable music player. Allard emerged from his sabbatical with a rather grandiose epiphany: "Technology was going to change entertainment forever." Returning to Microsoft, he looked around for a platform to prove his point, and eventually settled on video games. This was another case of Microsoft playing catch-up; Sony had by then cornered the video-game market. But Allard went in fighting and came out with Xbox, a system boasting state-of-the-art graphics, imaginative games, and a wildly enthusiastic fan base.

"It finally was a device that was cool that had Microsoft's name on it," Charles Cross says.

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