Name that Zune: Another consumer electronics flop

Now I am all for competition in the MP3 player space. However, if you are going to take on Apple’s wonderfully designed and thought out iPod, you better come strong with your ‘A’ game. And please don’t assume that ‘coming strong’ means taking a momentary lead in the features race. Bringing a strong product to market requires more refinement than that. It used to be (back in the days when Sony was relevant) that features did matter, because the underlying technologies were proprietary and those break-throughs were sustainable for years. Now with the velocity of information and technical advancement, these types of leads are no longer relevant. Now days the only innovation that matters is design. The features race is not the way to win market share or leadership…the features race is an un-winnable. However, the design race is.

In many ways the Zune (sorry MSFT) is symptomatic of whats wrong with the consumer electronics industry. It seems very few firms feel compelled to develop real products. What I mean by that is that most CE firms are churning out devices that are packed with features and tech specs that they think the Typical End User (“TEU”) will want. The problem is that because of the preoccupation with the features race or “features for features sake”, these devices are not well thought out and consequently, not products. Credit William Davidow with an eloquent description of the distinction:

“A product is the totality of what the customer buys. It is the physical device, or service from which the customer gets direct utility plus a number of other factors, services, or perceptions which make the product useful, desirable and convenient. When a device is properly augmented so it can be easily sold and used by the customer, it becomes a product.”

Let me illustrate:

From the Microsoft press release:

  • “30GB digital media player will come equipped with wireless functionality for Zune-to-Zune sharing of music, pictures and home recordings; a bright, three-inch LCD video screen that works in portrait or landscape mode to view pictures and videos; and a built-in FM tuner. The device will be available in three colors: black, brown and white.
  • A selection of preloaded content including songs, music videos and film shorts are installed on the device’s hard drive to help consumers discover new artists and entertainment.

Zune makes it easy to find music you love — whether it’s songs in your existing library or new music from the Zune Marketplace:

  • Its dynamic music service will be continually updated with new content and experiences so there is always something to discover.
  • The Zune Marketplace lets users browse and purchase songs individually.
  • A Zune Pass subscription gives consumers access to millions of songs for $14.99 per month.
  • Users can purchase songs individually using Microsoft® Points for 79 points per track. Similar to a pre-paid phone card, Microsoft Points is a stored value system that can be redeemed at a growing number of online stores, including the Xbox Live® Marketplace.”

What I see here is a series of features which any MP3 player will be able to do or can already do.

Going through the list we see that the device has many of the features expected in this category today: 30 GB drive, music store, color screen, and some innovations that are coming soon on many others (radio and gaming integration). They have even added another new feature (read: layer of complexity): Microsoft Points. Rather than just paying with real money, the financial wizards at Microsoft have devised a new “currency” to capture revenue by creating a system where there can be spare change on your points card that you either won’t spend or can’t spend until you buy more points (yet another proprietary system from Redmond)!
Its also worth noting that the wireless feature (the one feature the iPod doesn’t have yet) has been hampered greatly by disabling its most desirable feature:

“The wow feature of the device is wifi – a wireless way to connect to the Internet. Great – I can get music directly to the device without a PC! Wrong. In a baffling move Microsoft has crippled the wifi so it cannot load music from the Internet. You’ll need to attach it to your PC and run their software just like every other MP3 player. The wireless connection is only used to connect to another Zune device to move songs which will then vaporize after 3 days or 3 plays even if you own the music and both devices. Astonishingly the one feature which could fundamentally improve upon the iPod is worthless. If this device sounds familiar it’s been tried before with the MusicGremlin which I wrote about earlier this year when I called it the “most disappointing device” from this year’s CES (Consumer Electronic Show). ” (from Michael Robertson)

Clearly the device hasn’t been thought all the way through from a consumer’s perspective. If sharing music is deemed important by the product team, then why not resolve the DRM issues so that the customer isn’t left annoyed and confused? Further, if MSFT plans on marketing the wifi functionality, will they also note that the device cant access the internet directly to update the playlists from the Zune service?

Also, a bit of opinion here…I think people want to OWN their music and don’t want to have to leave it all behind when they move to another service. If I invest $15/month, or $180, I’d be pretty damn pissed if you told me I couldn’t take 15 cds worth of content with me. No such luck. Once again MSFT wants to bind its users (again at the user’s expense) to a platform.

Unfortunately, most consumer electronics firms operate the same way, Sony with their god-awful memory sticks and game consoles, cell phone manufacturers with their proprietary operating systems that prevent clean data movement (so its a royal pain to switch phone manufacturers), etc, etc.

Its too bad, really. Each time we see an example of this type of lock-in behavior, its at the user’s expense. Adding more features to a proprietary system doesn’t alleviate these problems…most times it adds another layer of complexity and frustration.
So for now, I will stick to the best designed product (and quite honestly, be fairly happy being ‘locked in’): the iPod and the iTunes Store. Apple has thought out everything from unwrapping the iPod to plugging it into my computer and easily downloading bought music or my own music. They have made it easy to consume media and have taken most of the complexity away from the end user. Granted there are issues with Apple’s DRM and sharing capabilities, but as they say about Democracy, its not a perfect system, just the best system in the face of alternatives.

My guess is that until someone steps up and starts designing their product experience from end to end as Apple does, the consumer electronics industry will have to get used to seeing a design company dominate market-share in the MP3 space.

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