Zune Should Go Beyond 'Squirting'

Have you squirted a song yet? That's the question Microsoft hopes your friends will ask you as you ponder which digital music player to acquire. Although you are more likely to buy an iPod this season--something even Microsoft admits--the software giant from Redmond is running a huge marketing campaign that it hopes will plant some seeds of doubt. After all, iPods don't squirt songs. And Microsoft's new player, Zune, does.

What's a song-squirt? It's the first, and currently the only, application of the wireless connectivity built into every Zune. (In other respects, the Zune is a decent, if not compelling, alternative to the hard-disk-drive iPod.) Squirting is a tune-sharing feature that works like this: With its built-in Wi-Fi, your Zune can alert you to the presence of every other Zune within 30 feet; you can then choose to send a song (or even a podcast or a photo) to any of the neighboring devices. The potential recipient gets a message asking if he or she wants to accept the tune. If so, you start squirting, and in 10 or 15 seconds the other Zune has the song, and its owner can play it.

The catch is that the squirt is fast-drying--in three days it goes away. Or, if the recipient plays it three times within that period, it evaporates after the third spin. This is because Microsoft cut a lousy deal with the record labels, which still regard innovative digital schemes as potential piracy threats, as opposed to potential sales boosters. My guess is that people will be turned off that the songs expire so quickly.

Robbie Bach, in charge of the Zune group at Microsoft, calls squirting "a really good first step," clearly indicating that the company, which sees Zune as a long-term project, will introduce other wireless functions. One obvious use is buying songs straight off the Internet, but I'm not sure that's so valuable--computers do pretty well at that already. Zune product manager Scott Erickson describes other possible uses--like allowing a concert performer to send a song to every Zune in the audience--that sound more intriguing.

But perhaps the best immediate use of Wi-Fi in any port-able music player might not be in sending music itself, which requires permission from the overcautious record labels. Instead, Microsoft could take a page from a feature built into Apple's iTunes that lets computer users on a network, or within close range via Wi-Fi, look at each other's music library. There is an insatiable need to know "What's on your iPod?" This goes for friends, celebrities and total strangers. It turns out that we really do make judgments about other people--and even have attractions triggered --based on what they listen to. Actual scientific proof of this comes from recent studies by Cambridge University psychologist Jason Rentfrow and his colleagues on "the role of musical preferences in interpersonal perception."

Spontaneously browsing a nearby music collection could result in any number of fascinating outcomes. How cool would it be to sit in a subway or take a break in a gym and check out the contents of the nearby music players, then try to visually identify the Miles Davis fan, the Ramones rocker and the Barry Manilow sentimentalist? It would be the ultimate social icebreaker--or, for those with woeful tastes, a deal breaker. (Of course, one would assume that users would have an option to specify whether they wanted their musical identities so exposed.)

My guess is that sooner or later, Apple will get Wi-Fi into iPods. In the meantime, allowing us to wirelessly expose ourselves in a musical sense could be a big win for Microsoft. We'd all be asking, "What's on your Zune?"