I'm late to the party with this post, but after overwhelming evidence from every quarter, it's clear that Microsoft is putting Plays for Sure (PFS) to bed and replacing it with the Zune hardware and software combination. So why do we care?
Well, the reason is that it concedes the online audio battle to Apple - it's officially over. Why is that? When PFS was up and running, there was a reasonable chance that the combined forces of the "Everyone but Apple" crowd would eventually dent the iPod/iTunes dominance with a series of differentiated devices and software services, all of which were transferable across this array of devices - thus the term, Plays for Sure. The download model alone might not do the job, but the Janus/MS 10 subscription services would be a different factor, and the combined weight/range of alternatives would be enough to move users to the new systems.
Unfortunately it didn't happen. Apple continued to have an 80%+ share in devices, as well as in downloads, and the Janus/MS10 functionality simply doesn't work well enough to be a good customer experience. The array of MP3 players didn't match up to Apple's focused designs and great advertising, and the software/hardware integration failed to produce a good experience. Try updating firmware on a PFS device, or watching it "time out" while trying to play a PFS song on an airplane - you will throw the device out the window.
So MS, building on its expensive but successful Xbox experience, decided to break away from PFS, and to develop its own integrated hardware/software solution, called Zune, slated to launch later this year. On paper this made sense - tie the service and platform together, differentiate on features such as WiFi, and roll out aggressive pricing and cool hardware.
However, it causes HUGE sets of problems in the marketplace. MS continues to maintain that PFS is a focus for them, but no one believes that, including the labels, who aren't necessarily happy about this development. The MP3 player companies are totally screwed - they now need some type of integrated solution vs just plugging in a turnkey MS PFS system, so they're scrambling like wild, with SanDisk hooking up with Real, Toshiba doing a deal with MS for Zune, Nokia buying Loudeye, and the others all looking at Napster or smaller alternatives. Since everyone is adding some type of "Secret Sauce" to the base PFS system, it's possible that none of the non-Apple music will play on other PFS devices. Sony Connect is still being featured on the back of a milk carton ("last seen in 2003") while MTV URGE is soon to be a key player in a "Where Are They Now" special on VH-1. And by the way, what ever happened to the well regarded MusicMatch once it was sucked in by Yahoo Music? This overall scenario is like being on the set of Under the Rainbow, with midgets running everywhere while Apple rampages away on its way to $2B in download revenue in 2007, even though its hardware isn't that superior anymore.
And the Microsoft Zune? Based on all known facts, there is no way the Zune takes any more than 5-10% market share, especially now that it looks like some of its vaunted next generation features such as WiFi are not really implemented in this version, and there is apparently no video solution, at least at launch. So what did we get in return for MS creating the Zune? We blew apart the coalition, splintering the anti-Apple group, and weakening all of the players. That's the end result of the the death of Plays for Sure.
Next battle is in video, where again, Apple is taking a strong lead due to better hardware, good software integration, and great marketing. The best bet is for the competitors to fight it out at the cell phone level, with Nokia and possibly RealNetworks (Wider Than deal) building potentially competitive solutions.