Does the iPod Competitor Stand a Chance? (a.k.a. Zune III – The Wrath of Khan)

zunesirius.jpgIn our first posting about Microsoft’s rumored competitor to the iPod, we caught you up on all the juicy details. In part two, we flat out told you that the Zune has a great chance to claim the market share throne from the iPod. And now in the startling conclusion, we’re going to bring it home by telling you (and hopefully the Microsoft executives that are huddled in a bunker trying to make this thing as dynamite as it can be) what the possible pitfalls are in releasing such a device.

Now, keep in mind once again. This is not a released product. There has been no word from Microsoft that the product even exists, much less any details about it’s functionality and specs. We’re dealing in a hypothetical scenario here. And also keep in mind that the goal of the post is not to talk negatively about Microsoft, but simply to point out some of the areas where they might experience some resistance given the current market and technical environment.

So, given all that (plus the eight big advantages that we listed in the last post, what could the boys from Redmond possibly have to worry about? In a word, plenty.

1. Overcomplicated Feature Set – When you hear rumors of Microsoft providing each customer with a free copy of all their iTunes songs in a new format, you know that this isn’t a niche device. When you’re spending dollars like that, naturally you hope to make a profit. And the way that they hope to do that is by capturing the mainstream market. But if the feature list is too complex, (“it plays music, it plays videos, it plays games, it does your taxes, it slices, it dices, it connects to the internet….”) I see the potential for “putting off” the mainstream iPod user who wants a simple player. Don’t get me wrong — looking at the front of a device with only three buttons, it looks as if they overstand this point. Well at least they do as far as the design. Let’s hope they understand this in the way that they market the device.

2. Cycle time for new digital device purchases is long – No matter how much you love that new 2007 Volkswagen Jetta, if you just bought a Jetta in 2004, chances are you aren’t going to pick up the new one. Now, a digital music device isn’t quite as expensive as a Jetta, but the same principle is at play. For all those mainstream iPod owners, at what point do you make the decision to put down your current device which works perfectly fine and pick up a new one? Either your device has to be broken, or there has to be a pretty compelling reason to pick up a new one. Some feature that you just can’t live without. (And the wireless connectivity thing might be it.) But it’s worth mentioning that a $299 iPod is not exactly a throw-away device.

3. iPod was a mainstream fad? – I remember waiting in line at the Apple Store last year. They might as well have called it the “iPod store.” I remember that there were four checkout people and one roaming guy who could check you out with a remote handheld unit. Three of the checkout units were there to check everyone out, but one young lady was shouting, “non-iPod purchases…this line is only for non-iPod purchases.” I don’t need to tell you that for the 20 minutes that I stood on a long line that divided into 3 cashiers that she only had one checkout. (Somebody bought a PowerBook). I’m sure most of those people use their devices. But let’s face it — some of them tried it for their first week back to work in January and when they realized that the music doesn’t just magically appear and that it takes a little effort… possibly ripping CDs and buying songs at the iTunes store to make it work. And now that $399 gift resides in the junk drawer. Or in some kid’s toybox. Or on eBay with the phrase, “New iPod – Barely Used!!” in the item line. My point being, perhaps all of those people just wanted to get in on something they thought was cool. Are all of these people still using their devices? Or was it just something to get so that you didn’t have to look like the outcast at the office. “Trish is so lame — she doesn’t even have an iPod!“. If this is true, then perhaps these folks have already “been there and done that”? I don’t think so. The population that has grown up without a computer is slowly fading away. But this is certainly something to consider.medium_getamac.jpg

4. Maybe Microsoft really isn’t cool? When John C. Dvorak talked about Microsoft not ever having been cool, I kinda disagreed. Yes, they’re associated with operating systems and spreadsheets, but I happen to think that even discounting the Xbox that they still represent stability and cutting edge technology. So for me, I don’t care if it was the ‘Zune – From Radio Shack!’ (yuck – Radio Shack.) If it had the interface and provided a great user experience, I’d pick it up. (Radio Shack? Well, maybe not.) But maybe Dvorak was onto something? Perhaps the mainstream folks see the black silhouetted dancers jumping around against the pink background and think, “Yeah…that’s my definition of cool!” and maybe they do see the nerdy guy who stands next to the Gen-Y kid in the commercial and see their uncool dad when they see Microsoft?

5. Innovation from Apple for 6th gen iPod – Right now Microsoft executives are planning for the Zune’s release. They’re positioning it against the iPod and doing what they can to make it more appealing. That is — they’re positioning it against this year’s iPod. Apple rumor sites have been buzzing with details about a possible true Video iPod (unlike the current iPod with Video) that has many new features including the ability to play movies and a much larger screen. (Rumored picture below). And so there’s every chance that the marketing plan that Microsoft is drawing up today may be slightly less relevant against a new iPod with more features. You know Steve Jobs is aware of the Zune. (You know the history there — no further comment needed.)

6. Not Enough Gen-Y – With the exception of the cool Xbox 360 campaign, I can’t recall many cool Gen-Y targeted Microsoft campaigns. (In the latest Microsoft Office campaign, I see business people being depicted with dinosaur heads. As a typical middle manager, I don’t know whether to be offended or not.) If they’re going the Gen-Y route with the marketing, I’m sure they’ll do fine in spreading the word that this is a cool device to own. But if they start working in a vacuum and creating a page on MSN Spaces only instead of having a MySpace page and if they abandon the 360-style marketing, we could be looking at a device that doesn’t have an identity among the cool Gen-Y kids.

7. Pricing – This one is tricky. Pricing seems obvious — “Don’t make it too expensive.” But pricing is a science. There are perceptions that the public draws from price. A $399 60GB Zune could be regarded as a worthy challenger to the $399 60 GB iPod. However, a $229 60GB Zune may be seen as “not quite as good”. (“Hmm… It’s cheaper. What’s wrong with it?”) Similarly a $429 Zune might be seen as “better because it costs more” or as a premium for those who could afford it. I watch people in Best Buy all the time who wouldn’t even consider the $149 upscaling progressive scan DVD player and instead go with the $249 Sony DVD player with the cool blue light under the drive tray, but no upscaling and no progressive scan. That is an example of brand sensitivity more than it is price sensitivity, but the point I’m making is that people equate price with value. The success of the Zune could have every bit as much to do with how it’s priced as it does with how it’s positioned.

8. The Click Wheel reigns supreme! – I’ve played with at least 50 digital music players of various sizes and features and I still can’t figure out why the click wheel is the best way (for me) to navigate my library, short of having a keyboard. It’s so good that companies are digging through their patents to try and say that they own the rights. Posts I’ve read can’t seem to definitively make heads or tails of that button in between the “play” and “back” button on the Zune. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a four-way navigational button, much like the one found on the Motorola Q. Being a Q-owner, I’ll tell you that a button like that wouldn’t be nearly as nice or as user-friendly as a click wheel. Perhaps the button spins like the click wheel? My point is that the navigation of the device determines the ease of use. That little silver button could be the key to whether the user experience is great of frustrating.

9. Zune? – Few things in life frustrate me like stubborn marketing. Be different, but don’t be stupid. I remember the day that Nintendo announced the name of their next generation console. The Wii. It still makes me mad. And what made the situation worse was the way that executives tried to defend it and say tvideoipodflickr.jpghat we’d get used to it. Well, guess what? We haven’t. And we won’t. Now, Zune isn’t quite at the level of Wii, but it’s pretty darn close. I’m hoping that like “Argo” this is just a code-name. There have to be much better ideas sitting on the creative table. You don’t pick a name just because the domain was available. “Hey look, you guys! Some guy’s registration just ran out on “Zune.com!!” Bottom line, ‘Zune’ is not the coolest of names for a device. Microsoft can do much better.

10. Interface – Nobody’s seen the interface yet (the image at the top of the post is a rumored rendering), but I hope that they don’t just take the Windows Mobile menu and slap it on this device. (Much like it appears in the photo above). It should be given a completely fresh and new look — as not to associate it with a mobile phone or a PDA. Perhaps something like the Xbox 360 menu might be nice? Like the navigational button, the interface can make or break the device.

11. Music Store – Not sure if they’re planning on launching a new store or re-branding the MSN Music Store, but they need to. And by “re-branding”, I don’t mean Urge either. This device needs a store that compliments the user experience like the iTunes Music Store compliments the iPod. I’m sure they’re spending time here. And if they’re not, they’re not as smart as we give them credit for.

12. Wireless access? Gaming? and Music? Battery better be super-potent! – When I take my MacBook Pro on the road, I’m getting maybe 2 1/2 hours on the battery if I’m just typing e-mails or working in Pages. Turn on the 802.11 wireless card and it does down to maybe 1:45. Add bluetooth and lots of disk access and I’m getting up and walking around the airport to find an outlet. Point being, if this thing is going to do all that we’re hearing, the battery has to be extremely powerful. Power consumption is something that most of the laptop makers haven’t figured out yet (certainly not Apple). But my iPod 60GB goes on one charge for about 3 days. (And that’s with me watching dl.tv and skipping all around the hard drive because of my A.D.D.). Bottom line – if it has gaming, video and music, the battery has to be incredibly powerful (or have a AC cord with enough slack for for me to drive 30 miles to work and back).

Well, as Robert Scoble says in his post about the Zune that the unfortunate thing is that we’ll have to wait until 2007 to see how this plays out. I’m excited. This should make for a really interesting head-to-head battle between the Zune and the new iPod. Once both products are released and have been in the market for awhile, it would be an interesting experiment to check out this post to see if any of these factors even matter. (Of course they will!) The great thing about competition like this is that we all win — better prices and more incentive to innovate and bring forth new features.

One last piece of advice — don’t buy anything now. Save all that holiday money and those Best Buy gift cards this December and wait until both Microsoft and Apple show their hand before buying a digital music player.

This is going to be good.

Zune images courtesy of Engadget.

Video iPod mock up image courtesy of MacRumors.


2 Responses to “Does the iPod Competitor Stand a Chance? (a.k.a. Zune III – The Wrath of Khan)”

  1. July 21, 2006 at 3:18 am

    We haven’t go used to Wii? We never will? You got it all wrong my friend. Nintendo was at the highest peak of creativity. The name is good nad it’;s catching on, soon everyone will use it as seDon’t think you’re so cool. Don’t use the word “we” while you represent NONE of the readers (or only 10%). thank you.

  2. 2 yakuza51
    July 21, 2006 at 11:17 am

    must be a nintendo fanboy. the article isnt even making fun of the wii. theyre talking about the fact that the name is bad. and it is bad. face it.

    nice job.

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