Microsoft Corp. said late Monday it will now sell TV shows, including popular NBC series, on the Zune Marketplace, a move that brings its selection of content for the digital media player a step closer to what Apple Inc.'s iTunes offers for Apple's much more popular iPod.
Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft said it also planned to send out software updates overnight that add new features to the Zune devices and the PC software used to buy and manage digital content.
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Microsoft ventured into downloadable video sales for Zunes last October when it released its second-generation players and software, but the content was limited to music videos.
Starting Tuesday, Microsoft will sell episodes of TV shows including Comedy Central's "South Park" and Sci-Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" for $1.99 each.
In a small victory over Apple, Microsoft said the Zune Marketplace will also carry NBC shows including "The Office" and "Heroes." NBC Universal has said it pulled its shows from iTunes over Apple's unwillingness to set different prices for TV shows.
Microsoft spokesman Jason Reindorp said flexible pricing is within the scope of its agreement with NBC, but that there are no concrete plans.
The software maker still has a lot of work to do to catch Apple. Since the first Zune went on sale in November 2006, the software maker has sold "just north of 2 million" of the devices, Reindorp said. Apple sold 10.6 million iPods in the first three months of 2008 alone.
Features on Zune, not on iPod
But the Zune offers some capabilities the iPod doesn't. One Microsoft is betting on is its Zune Pass subscription service, which gives users access to every song in the catalog for $14.99 per month.
Reindorp said TV shows aren't available as part of the subscription service yet, but that Microsoft is looking this year at making Zune Pass less expensive or including more content in the monthly fee.
Zunes can also synchronize wirelessly with PCs, something iPods and Macs can't do. Users can plug a Zune into its charger anywhere in range of their home Wi-Fi network and the device will update itself automatically.
One of the software updates planned for Monday night will make it possible to synchronize several Zunes wirelessly and simultaneously with the same computer. Another lets users sitting at their PCs choose new content to send to a Zune next time it's in range. Before, a Zune's user had to connect the device to a PC — wirelessly or with a cable — to tweak its contents.
Microsoft's service also emphasizes the social aspect of music consumption and includes services to help users tap into their friends' music discoveries. After the update, Zune Pass subscribers will be able to easily send the contents of friends' "Zune Cards," or mini-profiles showing favorite tunes and recently played tracks, to their own Zunes.
Other new features include gapless music playback and playlists that automatically update themselves based on criteria set by the Zune user.
Reindorp said the software update was widely tested among Microsoft employees.