Sunday, November 26, 2006

ouch: zune a "complete, humiliating failure" says chicago sun-times

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Andy Ihnatko unloaded his angry gun in a recent review of the Microsoft Zune player. Go give it a look then pop back here. I can wait.

Now I've read bad reviews before. I've even been the subject of bad reviews. But when Mr. Ihnatko wrote. . .
The Zune is a square wheel, a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity.
. . .I found myself looking for the punchline. The Zune may not reach the standard of openness and interoperability that some reviewers might be looking for, but the device itself is far from DOA.

The other day I was in a local OfficeMax to make some copies when I stumbled across a Zune display comprised of two units padlocked to booms and a variety of accessories. The one functioning Zune was connected to a pair of portable speakers. . .and was tuned to a radio station.

That alone had some stopping power, so I paused to give it a second look.

I'll spare you a discussion of the navigation controls or the size of the thing. The display unit had a few music videos stored on it that looked terrific (picture quality, not picture content - not a big fan of the hip-hop, am I) and the integrated radio performed flawlessly in a brief test. I tried out the music interface and while not quite as familiar as the iPod, it wasn't "broken".

When I think about how I would use a device like this, I don't imagine that I would want to share music - no one I know likes the sort of crap that I go in for. Nor do I think I'd ever want to go "on-line" to buy ZunePoints on the ZuneMarketplace.

So if the way it handles DRM, file sharing and on-line transactions are "broken", I don't really care. Given that it is a first-generation device, and given that the Zune product managers are now walking the earth listening to the market reaction to their first attempt, I can expect that certain "broken" functions will be less so in the next generation.

And I can guarantee you that there will be a next generation Zune. And a third. The refresh rate on consumer electronics is the critical success factor, moreso than the success rate of a given generation.

But here's the kicker - I'm not the target demographic for this device, so what I think doesn't count. My "use case" doesn't matter as much as that of the 20-somethings pictured in the Zune ads. MSFT has made a bet that this demo cares about radio, they care about sharing music, and they care about video. What Microsoft didn't take into consideration is that this demographic also cares about "street cred" the same way that extreme sports fans do.

In his article "In Board Sports, Insider Status Makes Gear Sell", Matt Higgins wrote (my italics):
If it seems confusing, that is sort of the point. An insider’s understanding has kept the lucrative board-sports industrial complex — skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing — mostly in the hands of hard-core practitioners, even as these sports have grown more popular. Mainstream companies like Nike that have easily penetrated other sports often find themselves on the outside looking in, struggling to gain traction with action-sports athletes and fans who define their world by its antiestablishment bent.
Like it or not, Apple owns the antiestablishment brand, while Microsoft is the essence of establishment. It shouldn't surprise anyone when Angry Reviewers like Mr. Ihnatko savage Microsoft over their decision to embed industry-friendly DRM controls into the Zune. . .even though Apple has similar protections in their iPods.

So in the end it comes down to branding, perception management and good old-fashioned PR. By failing to guarantee that the Zune's features didn't violate the belief set of the target demographic, Microsoft has all but guaranteed that this first generation Zune will fail. It's not that it lacks compelling features, a solid user interface or even good design - it has all three - but it lacks street cred.

An example of a feature that would help restore the Zune's "street cred" would be for Microsoft to remove the song-sharing feature in lieu of a simple "share my favorites" capability that allows the user to send "pointers" to their favorite music, movies, pictures, etc to friends. This would make it easier for the recipient to access them online, perhaps at a "referral discount", with a "referral credit" to the original referrer. Everyone wins. If they're that interested in making it easy for 20-somethings to listen to the same music, put a second audio jack on each Zune, or an audio jack "in" attachment to each earpiece.

Taking the file sharing out would eliminate the "three song maximum" restriction that so many users find offensive. It would replace it with a function that would meet the use case ("let me share my music") without the deal-breaking DRM restrictions.

I'm looking forward to the second generation Zune (update: Microsoft confirmed on 7.23.07 that there will be a second generation Zune for the 2007 holiday season), if only to see how well the Zune product managers have listened to the lessons of the first. The first generation may be less than great, but it's far from a humiliating failure.

1 comment:

Ron said...

It's sobering to think that we can identify our true social ages by what market demo we represent...

DRM and antiestablishment ain't ever gonna really bond. The iPod is the max I think they'll take. Microsoft has never really tried to work that side of the street.

I feel a sense of sadness when I think the Golden Age of pure hardware may have passed us by; they'll be trying and trying and trying to put the DRM in the boxes of the future to the point of beating us down into submission. The true tech people will hang onto old hardware or find 'backchannel' new hardware...