Opinion: Zune in, Zune out

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Apple is about to get some more serious competition for its most important revenue source. Microsoft just released some details about its soon to be launched Zune portable media player to tackle the dominance most sold MP3 player on the planet. There are some new features. But what's up with that funky design - and brown color? Is Microsoft serious?

When some of our colleagues uncovered Microsoft's plans a few weeks ago that the Redmond firm would go head to head with Apple's Ipod, there was almost a sensation of relief. Yup, I am not particularly excited about Apple and its products. Even if I have to admit that Macbooks and Ipods are pretty, in my very personal opinion, most Apple boxes are too expensive for the functionality they deliver.

So, Zune was on its way and with it more competition in the MP3 player market. Finally, after more than five years, someone could have come up with an idea to roll out a more functional MP3 and portable video player with features the Ipod lacks, a striking design, compatibility with more music download services and a price that gives Apple a run for its money.

Last Thursday was the big day of the, well, beta unveiling, sort of. And, unfortunately, the first details lowered my expectations. Yes, there's the wireless feature that Apple curiously ignored for some time; but here's a serious question: Was the industrial design team on its lunch break when the final look of the device was approved?

No, I was not at the presentation of the device and have to make my initial judgements by looking at the first renderings and the specs that have been released by Microsoft and Toshiba in the Zunbe submission to the FCC. The first images indicate that Zune will look like a mix between Apple's first clunky Ipod, Intel's long-gone Pocket Concert player and a 1950s Zenith radio.

Yes, it's a modified product picture. But add some fake wood grain to the case design and add a few custom knobs and you have a modern 1950's Zenith tube radio

Looks are a matter of taste, but I feel quite safe in saying that, in comparison to the Ipod, the design is below expectations, especially in that rather strange brown color. To be fair, the first Apple Ipod wasn't quite the big hitter either. At the time, Apple had promised a revolutionary device and build an expectation that was met with doubt initially. When Steve Jobs pulled out a hard drive-based MP3 player and described it as the best thing since sliced head, the polite applause and following silence in the presentation audience were not a result of an unexpected stunner. Instead, the question you heard was: "That's it?"

Yes there was a neat scroll wheel, a Firewire interface and the Ipod was pleasant to look at. But revolutionary? It was heavy, you saw every finger print on that brushed steel backplate and the rechargeable battery did not deserve its name. Plus, it was about twice as expensive as competing devices.

Somehow, Apple got to a point where it can sell 8.1 million Ipods in one quarter (fiscal Q3 2006) and bring in more than $1.7 billion in the same timeframe - more than the company makes from selling computers. Despite obvious deficiences such as the outrageous strategy to hold users hostage to Itunes, despite an obvious lack of features and a high price. So what's the deal here?

microsoft zune

Microsoft's Zune line-up

What we learned in recent years is that the success of the Ipod isn't so much based on the features of the device, but on a more complex set of factors that are tailored to appeal to a broad target group - everyone who listens to music. Instead of designing a device that has a very techy feel, Apple considered a much wider market and built the perfect device for it: Start with a simple device that excels at its core functionality - to play music anywhere and anytime you go. Have the player designed by the best product designers you can find, give it a name that is easy to remember. Construct a marketing campaign that highlights these characteristics and creates emotions. Throw in the already prestigeous Apple brand and Steve Jobs, who has the rare talent of being able to to sell the most trivial thing on earth as the greatest invention.

Yes, Apple's product plan is certainly much more complex, including a development of a product ecosystem and a strategy to promote Ipod sales through the close content relationship to Itunes, but there's no denying that emotion is a big driver behind the Ipod.

The first Ipod, released in 2001

So where's Microsoft in this? I don't know how emotional you feel about Zune. But besides the fact that Microsoft is trying to create its own basic, simple brand for a player family that has potential for an appealing campaign, I don't see that much that could win me over. The name Microsoft isn't generally associated with great industrial design in consumer electronics and Zune won't help to change that perception: Leaving aside that Apple typically has a better hand in choosing product colors, the Zune integrates unneccessary design elements. The more simplistic design of the Ipod feels much more upscale. The Zune's advantage at this time clearly is an integrated FM tuner and Wi-Fi, which comes at the cost of a bulky case design. But I doubt that Microsoft's and consumers' expectations from Wi-Fi are in sync: A quote from the press release:

"Zune lets you spontaneously share selected full-length sample tracks of your favorite songs, homemade recordings, playlists or pictures with friends wirelessly, device to device. You can listen to any song you receive up to three times in three days. And if you like a song you hear and want to buy it, you can flag it right on your device to easily find it later"

There ought to be more use in Wi-Fi than using it as a tool to promote music sales. There are some reports that Zune may be able to receive music and video streams stored on a computer or media network at home, but Microsoft hasn't confirmed such a service yet. From the first impression, Zune appears like an unfinished product that needs some work. In that respect, it's good news that Microsoft already announced that the company it is in it for long run. So, not all hope is lost.

But then I could could be completely wrong and Zune is everything we are waiting for. We'll have to wait until this Christmas season to see how well Zune is received.