18
Sep
06

Thoughts on the Zune Announcement

On Thursday, Microsoft put all rumors to rest and had an official coming out party for their Zune media player. Lots of folks are referring to the Zune as “Microsoft’s answer to the iPod”, but perhaps that isn’t quite fair. After all, there’s enough room in the space for more competitors. And honestly, if Microsoft does well with this player — even if it isn’t quite on the magnitude of what they would have hoped — we all benefit. We benefit by forcing Apple to do even more to innovate with the iPod. As much as the iPod has evolved since it’s launch in 2001, I wonder how much further the tech might be had they been seriously challenged much earlier.

The Interface

The Zune is certainly a worthy adversary. Looking at the video of the interface, you can tell that there’s more graphical capabilities within the Zune. The transitions between screens are more akin to that of a Windows Mobile Device or a gaming device. The FM Tuner is something that is not standard as part of the iPod (you can purchase the remote that changes the screen to that of a classic FM tuner. And the ability to customize the display is a nice touch — certainly something that the average iPod user can’t do (unless they hacked the interface.) The only issue (if I’m Microsoft) is that the font is already very ordinary looking. Couple that with giving people the opportunity to customize the interface and you could detract from the simplicity that gives your player a universal appearance (like the iconic “iPod screen” that everyone can identify). In other words, there will be no real signature look to the interface that’s identifiable to the “Zune experience” if everyone customizes the screen to their heart’s content. That said, perhaps people will be very receptive to the customization options.

Wireless Integration

Where the Zune will probably live or die is on it’s biggest competitive advantage — wireless integration. How techies respond to the additional functionality will certainly be the difference between the Zune becoming a thorn in the side of the iPod or just another tombstone in a long line of mp3 players that were unable to capture mass market attention. Personally, I think it’s a cool feature, as I mentioned in my previous Zune discussion. But I wonder whether or not it will really catch on. After all — you need to have two Zunes (at least) to start sharing songs. Bigger than that is the social obstacle. I have a very eccentric musical taste. I’m not even sure that I want friends sharing songs with me, much less complete strangers. How is this “social” facilitation supposed to take place? After all, aside from meeting friends at work or school, people are in another world when they’re walking around with headphones on. And what about the 3-Day limit for songs? (Apparently if you share a song with someone purchased at the Zune store, it will remain on your Zune for 3 days and will remain active for only 3 plays, at which time you can either delete it or flag it for purchase. Hmm? I wonder what happens if you want to share non Zune-DRM’d songs? Can you just share entire mp3 playlists that folks can keep forever? (Now, that might be interesting.)

The Zune Store

I was surprised back in July when I heard that the Zune would have it’s own store and I was almost as surprised to hear that this wasn’t a rumor. Whatever their reasons for not choosing to have Zune songs purchased through MSN Music or URGE, I think this is a pretty ballsy move. It certainly must have upset MTV and other partners involved with URGE, as that effort began less than a year ago. If I had to guess, I would say that this is an attempt to both create a new and sexy store as well as to distance themselves from the less than stellar success associated with MSN Music.

Looking at the storefront, I think it looks great. Very simple — like the player that compliments it. It puts the focus on the artists and the music. Hopefully the store will be easy to navigate. I was a Napster subscriber for about a year and as much as I enjoyed listening to albums for the $9.95 monthly fee, the player felt like a poorly designed web browser. It was slow. It was laggy. It felt a lot like Internet Explorer, only much, much worse. Here’s hoping that they’ll make the music store feel as light as it looks.

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The “Brown” debate

Lots of jokes are circulating about the fact that the player comes in black, white…..and brown. Brown does seem like a rather odd choice, but to their credit, it’s disruptive. If you’re going to have a chance at winning this thing, you have to take some chances. And while brown isn’t exactly daring, there aren’t any other players offered in brown.

If I were J Allard and the crew, I might move in a different direction. Instead of black, white, brown….how ’bout red, black and pink? What I’m getting at is, you’d want to distinguish it from the current iPod colors and still have something that’s attractive and that folks identify with. There’s no “red” iPod. And “pink” seems to be popular with the ladies and it isn’t offered in the standard iPod model. (And of course you need black as a neutral/safety color.)

More than the player, I’d also target the headphones (as I also talked about in an earlier post.) They certainly can improve on the iPod’s poor quality bass-lacking earbuds. Also, from a marketing perspective, Apple likes to hang it’s hat on the fact that they created a generation of folks who have white earbuds hanging from their ears. And to some degree they have. Well, why not have earbuds that are the same wild colors as the players (at least the ones I propose above.) Have a red player with red earbuds. A pink player with pink earbuds. And perhaps for the black player, you can do a swirl of pink, white and black (like the Zune logo?) Then again, that would piss folks who want a low key experience off. Well, maybe not the swirl thing, but my point is create your own trend. If you have a white Zune or a black Zune, there’s not much to distinguish it from a standard iPod to most mainstream folks — especially if it’s in a case or in your pocket. As a matter of fact, I bet most main stream folks are probably going to mistake it for an iPod. And if this happens, oh well — there goes your “disruptive marketing” campaign.

She’s Kinda Thick

Most people on the Interweb have been noticing that the Zune is a bit “thicker” than the iPod — particularly the iPod that is equal in disk space, the 30GB unit. Whether this makes a difference is debatable. The thin design of the 30 GB iPod is certainly more aesthetically pleasing (in my slightly biased opinion), but the Zune definitely gives you more for that larger form factor: highly customizable, a larger screen, wireless integration and basically a player that is seemingly more powerful.

No Price?!! No Official Date?!!

Initially this didn’t make much sense. Why release press information about the Zune if you have no release date (particularly this late into the quarter) and no pricing information?!! However, taking a look back at recent announcements, the picture becomes clear. Microsoft probably was looking to price the Zune at $299 — the same as the 30 GB iPod. The angle that they probably would have taken is, “Yes, the Zune is the same price as the 30 GB iPod….but look at how much more you get? Bigger screen, wireless functionality, etc.” In light of Apple’s price drop of the 30 GB iPod to $249 just two days earlier, perhaps they scrapped that slide in the PowerPoint slide deck. And it’s understandable. They need to price the player properly to have the right impact. But hopefully they don’t wait too much longer. They’re already losing the tech crowd buzz after the Nintendo Wii press conference and with the Tokyo Game Show this week, their news may be overshadowed.

So, what’s the verdict on “Stealing Market Share From Apple”

So, with all that having been said… with everyone knowing so much more about this player, the question remains: “Does this thing have a chance at capturing market share?” The short answer is, “possibly.” But the verdict is still out. There are a lot of questions that remain — not the least of which is, “What’s the price and when can I get this!?!?” The Zune is expected to launch in time for the holiday of 2006. Perhaps I can convince the folks in Redmond to send me a review unit? (Stranger things have happened.) We’ll see. Anyhow, stay tuned to Random Digital Musings for more info on the Zune and it’s progress.

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