Just finishing up a roundup piece for CPU on media players/manager applications. This was my first look at Microsoft's Zune software in the last couple of years, and I was really pleasantly surprised. I actually prefer Zune 4 to the Windows Media Player built into Windows 7. It's got all the same functionality but a much better, sexier layout that stays consistent with the Xbox 360 and Phone 7 type of styling. Will Phone 7 kill off Zune? Perhaps, but I'd like to see Zune evolve into a major piece of the Phone 7 software platform, even if it means losing the Zune name...which might actually be a good thing given the handheld player's (embarrassing lack of) sales.
iTunes 10 remains my default media player, but only out of habits derived from years of using an iPod. Nowadays, I use my Droid phone for nearly all portable audio. For anything that iTunes doesn't handle, I turn first to VLC. I was also impressed with Helium Music Manager 7, although the fact that Helium costs $29 raises an interesting question.
With so many free player/manager options available, how many people actually feel it worthwhile to pay for features such as advanced tag editing? I'm not asking this facetiously. I'd really like to know. I consider myself a "power user," but I rarely take the time even to correct album cover art glitches in iTunes, never mind other metadata errors. Maybe I'm 25 years older than the average user who gets worked up about having accurate lyrics data and proper genre tagging and am simply missing the point.
The thing about Zune that seems really enticing to me is how you can get unlimited radio stations personalized for yourself if you have a Zune Pass account. This is a $15/month, all-you-can-stream-and-download subscription. Imagine Pandora radio tapping into the iTunes music store -- no ads and almost unlimited music -- and that's about what you get with Zune and Zune Pass. I'm not endorsing the Zune player or even the Zune software. I'm saying that having a strong player app backed by this sort of functionality will prove too persuasive for most people to resist. Even great players like Helium will have a difficult time surviving unless they can hook into equivalent online services. Once more, cloud integration will become the deciding factor in another software niche.