Zune’s getting free video, will iPod?

If you’re willing to believe all the Zune “rumor and speculation” out there, part of Microsoft’s plan to convert the iPod-loving masses is “free music:” the company has already confirmed that it will pre-load music videos from at least three bands onto the Zune players planned for November of this year, and persistent chatter suggests that the company wants to let iTunes Music Store customers re-download all of their Apple-encrypted tracks in a Zune-compatible format, at no charge. Now it appears that Microsoft is ready to break down another free content barrier to Zune’s success: if you want totally free, Zune-ready television shows, it looks like you’ll be able to get them, too. How? A Windows Media Center-ready PC. For the details, click on Read More, below.

Let’s back up. Microsoft released its third-generation Windows XP Media Center a while ago, and though Apple has mocked the 40-plus button remote controls sold for Media Center-ready PCs, it hasn’t released either software or hardware with Microsoft’s best function: TV recording. Apple’s iPods and beautiful, easy-to-use computer media interface Front Row allow you to play videos, but you have to make them or buy them yourself. As we’ve explained in several different tutorials, that process is either expensive, terribly time-consuming, or difficult – there’s no Apple-developed instant TV-to-iPod recording device, so instead of just letting you watch your DVR/TiVo-recorded video on your iPod, you typically need to download or buy a special piece of third-party software, then spend time recording, transferring, and converting the TV show, etcetera – daunting for average people. Or you have to pay $1.99 per video download, which seems like a lot considering that thousands of TV shows air and can be recorded for free.

Microsoft has taken a different – and to date, better – approach. Today’s Media Center PCs can record directly from built-in TV tuners and transfer videos to dedicated Media Center Extenders – boxes connected to TVs for the sole purpose of displaying Media Center content, Xbox game consoles, or certain portable video devices. You don’t pay per show for recordings, and you don’t need special software or hardware. A skeptic’s natural response to this is obvious: “So what? Almost no one owns Media Center PCs, and only supergeeks are going to shell out the money to buy them.” We agree. And we think Microsoft figured that out over the last three generations of Media Center.

That’s why every home Windows Vista buyer’s disc will include a new version of Media Center, either unlocked out of the box as part of the “Premium” installation, or available on the installation DVD as an paid upgrade with nothing more than an unlock code. If your computer doesn’t already include a TV tuner for recording, you can add it for a low cost. Suddenly, your PC becomes a DVR, a server for your home televisions, and an automatic converter for your portable media device – such as Zune. Like it or not, this Microsoft solution is easier, faster, and cheaper in the long run than jumping through the iPod’s current hoops – and a truly integrated hardware/software solution, which the iPod currently lacks for video.

As of today, Apple’s missing all three pieces of this strategy – you can cobble together third-party Mac and iPod TV recording tools, but they’re not cheap or easy enough for most iPod owners, particularly computer novices, and those with PCs. Then there’s the question of how to play these videos on a standard TV that’s not connected to a Mac or iPod – Microsoft has the aforementioned Extenders and Xboxes, but there’s no video equivalent of AirPort Express. None of this is to say that Microsoft’s alternatives are ideal solutions, but they exist, and that counts for something.

Conventional wisdom would have it that Apple can afford to be behind the curve, since Media Center PC sales aren’t impressive, Vista’s not due out until 2007 (we think), and no Media Center-compatible portable video device has been more than a modest seller. But if Microsoft gets its stuff together, both figuratively and literally, it can address the big video picture in a way that average, price-conscious users may well find more compelling than purchasing free TV content or buying Apple-developed hardware. From what we gather, Microsoft starts executing on that strategy in November with Zune, and will continue throughout early 2007, so the clock’s ticking for Apple. Our hope is that a better solution’s coming, and soon.

Latest News