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So, What’s the Advantage?

November 15th, 2006

Zune is now out there. Kind of. It’s not exactly flying off the shelves, apparently. Not like the PS3, for example, where huge throngs of people lined up to buy them and they sold out instantly. With the Zune on it’s first day out, Best Buy in San Francisco sold all of ten units in the morning–which the store’s manager said was “better than I expected.” That kind of sums it up.

ZunelogoThe Zune is obviously intended as an iPod-killer, but has been beset by problems from the start. First was the choice of names. I mean, really–”Zune”? Is that supposed to be a combination of “Tune” and. . . what, the letter “Z”? The logo they chose is not exactly all that spiffy, either. The Zune includes a logo sticker (again copying Apple), but who would want to slap that thing on anything they own?

What’s more, the design ain’t great; it’s bigger and clunkier than an iPod, and though the plastic casing may be more resilient to scratches and smudges, it’s also less appealing. The wheel/circle, apparently intended to be reminiscent of the iPod’s scroll wheel, doesn’t scroll, it just covers four buttons. And the colors include white, black, and. . . brown. And people say that the brown is the best-looking one. Maybe I’m prejudiced, but when your new product looks its best in the crap-colored version, you know something is probably wrong.

ZunecolorsMicrosoft is pushing this as being better than an iPod, touting two main features: the WiFi interconnectivity, and the larger video display. Neither of these selling points, however, live up to the hype. The screen is a touch bigger than the iPod’s, but it is the same resolution–which just means that the image quality will be a bit poorer as well. Just hold your iPod an inch or two closer and the difference will cancel out.

But the WiFi “sharing” is the big thing. I remember seeing a clip from the Oprah show where all the audience members were given a Zune, and a guest (presumably from Microsoft) gave the selling point: you can send songs from one Zune to the other! If your friend has a song that you don’t have, you can ask them to send it to you, then it’s on your Zune! Microsoft is even using a new slogan, “Welcome to the Social!”

What the MS rep on Oprah, and MS’ pitches in general fail to mention is that the “sharing” is limited by Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions. Any file sent from one Zune to another is only playable three times. If you don’t use all three plays in three days, it becomes unplayable anyway. It does not disappear, though–it remains on your Zune as an advertisement linked to Microsoft’s Zune music store. Wouldn’t it be fun to litter your playlists with ads for songs? To see a listing and think you have music, only to have it not play, and instead urge you to buy it? Wheee!

Update: I forgot to mention–once you’ve sent a piece of music to a friend, you can never re-send it to the same person again. So, no loophole there. Also, to be fair, it seems that the ‘littering’ of sent-but-unplayable songs will be limited to an “in-box” and not your main library–I think. So it’s possible that you won’t be constantly tripping over unplayable music equivalent to ads.

But let’s say you don’t mind the DRM or the ad-littering. Still, how often will sharing be possible? Think about it. I have an iPod. So do many people I know, fellow teachers, students, friends. And yet I cannot remember the last time I encountered anyone using an iPod at the same time I was and there was any likelihood that either of us would share with each other. Maybe some people would use it more than others, but frankly, I think that this feature will go to waste for most people.

But the WiFi feature has other down points as well. Even non-protected songs get zapped by the DRM. Even if you make your own song, when it is transferred from one Zune to the other, it again gets zapped–three plays or three days. And WiFi should be a powerful feature–it could be used to connect to the web with the Zune as a mobile-phone-style browser, it could allow you to buy songs online at hotspots, it could connect to digital cameras and other devices–but the Zune does not. Hell, it won’t even connect to your own computer via WiFi! It is currently only active for Zune-to-Zune transfers, and that is limited to photos and music files with the DRMs (no videos). One imagines that MS will eventually enable the other abilities, but for them to have it so limited at launch is disappointing.

Another down point of the Zune, this one not related to the user experience, is Bill Gate’s decision to sell out to the music companies. Gates decided to give a cut of each Zune sold to Universal. It is only $1 per $250 Zune, but the precedent is the damning thing. It is virtually blackmail, and Gates is caving in so he can enter the market–but by ding so he is opening the gates for more gouging in the future, weakening Apple and other makers of players who until now have resisted the media companies’ demands of extortion. More on that later, in a different post.

Finally, one last screw-up: Zune is incompatible with Vista. I’m sorry, but when your two big November releases are Zune and Vista, and neither will work with the other, someone isn’t doing their job right. Especially when Vista has been in Beta forever and most software by third-party vendors will work on it. Both Vista and Zune have been in parallel development for so long that for them to be incompatible is almost unforgivable. I know there will be an upgrade by January (erm, I think there will be), but nevertheless, this is not a well-played release. [Update: Microsoft now claims that Zune will be compatible with Vista "by January 30, 2007"--presumably the release date for the consumer version of Vista.]

Vistazune-450

By the way, why do people seem to be grimacing in the Zune software images? It’s not just the frame above, there are a few more as well. Maybe they tried to install it on Vista. . . If this is their attempt to show people singing, their photographers did a terrible job. It looks like the woman above is in pain. And are those other two women making out? What a bizarre image.

Okay, all bashing aside: Apple should be worried. Yes, that’s right, I just said that. But why? Was I insincere in all the criticism? Nope. I think it is 100% accurate, and the Zune is a piece of crap. So why should Apple be worried? Because everything that Microsoft releases is a piece of crap. . . in the beginning. MS has a history of this: release a piece of crap. Then make an improvement, And another. And then another. And by the time the piece of crap is somewhat less crappy, MS has used their marketing thuggishness and 800-pound-gorilla status in the marketplace to sell a million of them and make people feel like the piece of crap is exactly what they should be using, for some reason they cannot quite pin down. MS Word was a piece of crap. Internet Explorer was a piece of crap. Windows was a piece of crap. And the Zune is a piece of crap. Therefore, with Microsoft’s deep pockets to subsidize it for many years while they work their marketing magic, it could actually be a threat.

And Zune does have some potential. The WiFi, as earlier stated, could be expanded to include some very good features. The iPod went through redesigns, so the Zune will eventually look less like a really bad remote control. And if Microsoft has shown a talent for anything, ripping off Apple is it.

Of course, eventual Zune dominance is far from a sure thing. While we all know that MS would never improve anything unless someone was nipping at their heels, we know just as well that Apple would be improving things even if no one is within a mile of them. Apple will not rest on its laurels with the iPod. If Apple does indeed soon release its full-screen touch-controlled iPod, it will deliver a crushing blow to the Zune. And while MS can copy Apple, they can’t duplicate Apple’s finesse and coolness.

It’ll be a competition, but in the end, I think Apple will win over Microsoft on this one–just like Google has. Despite Microsoft’s best efforts, they aren’t even close to Google in what Google does. And likely the Zune will be a repeat of this. I don’t think the Zune will be as big a disaster as some predict; I think it will still be there ten years from now, but I don’t think it’ll ever get to be on top.

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  1. Paul
    November 16th, 2006 at 10:13 | #1

    As I read the rundown, I was thinking “well, the only really big feature is the WiFi. People will crack the DRM encryption, like they did on iTunes songs, and then be able to share.”

    Then you covered that point- that even an MP3 that someone owns legally (say it’s their own band) will only play three times over three days- and it all blew up.

    Why buy a Zune, if that’s the case? The WiFi, in that case, just isn’t a big deal.

    Plainly Microsoft’s big hope is the same one as the record company- that the digital music notion is that someone will have purchased a really neato song, then share it (via WiFi) with their pal, who will be hooked on it in just three listenings and then go buy it for themselves.

    Me, I don’t see that happening, for any number of reasons. First of all, why bother sharing it via WiFi when there’s so many ways to simply crack the encryption and then share it via email, so the receiver can then listen to it as many times as they please?

    Secondly, are people really wanting to share music like that? Personally, I don’t- it’s not like I’m doing a lap around Greenlake and thinking “I wish someone would stop and share some music with me”.

    Then again, I can admit that I’m far enough removed from the college kid scene, and the school-age-kid scene, to not know. It’s possible that MS and the record companies did some market research and discovered that there IS a market for this… but I’m a skeptic.

    No, I think that the only big difference between the Zune and the iPod/iTunes combo is the WiFi, and as you point out it’s essentially useless right now anyway. WiFi connected, but when I wanna load it up with music I still have to wire it to my computer? Feh.

    I suppose there’s some room in the client software to grab some market share… frankly, I think iTunes is not intuitive and kind of cluttered, and is vulnerable. But people aren’t going to buy this kind of hardware based on the useability of the client software.

    I’m perfectly happy that I have a couple of iPods, the nano and the video iPod.

    Paul
    Seattle, WA

  2. Luis
    November 16th, 2006 at 10:59 | #2

    Why buy a Zune, if that’s the case? The WiFi, in that case, just isn’t a big deal. Exactly. I think that Microsoft is simply hoping to hook people into it–do everything they can to sucker them to invest in a Zune, then they’re hooked. Then use the “social” aspect to get the hooked suckers to sucker even more people into it so the suckers will have company, and can share their music in a sucky way. I tried not to knock Zune for anything that Apple did in the same way, so I didn’t mention stuff like unplayable formats or the locked-in proprietary music purchasing, non-transferable to another player (unless you crack the DRM). But I think that’s the plan, just like it was with Windows. Get people to invest, trap them, then add to their collection.

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