Thursday, May 28, 2009

Zune version 3: One more, and they might finally get it right

It is in Microsoft's DNA to go through several versions of their products before they begin to get it right. And sometimes they keep making money even with the lousy versions. It happened with DOS (version 6); it happened with Windows (version 3); it happened with Windows CE/Mobile (version 4); and it may happen with Zune (version 3).

Just like Microsoft is the 800-lb gorilla of the desktop computing marketplace, so is Apple the weighty simian of the portable music player landscape. According to business analysis firm Piper Jaffray, Apple owns 86% of the market for MP3 players. That compares well with Microsoft's 90%+ hold over the desktop segment.

Apple, of course, got it pretty right the first time out. That is in the nature of Apple (and institutionalized by Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, a many-storied perfectionist): Apple does not wish to have its name sullied by releasing poorly conceived products - and indeed, being the relatively small corporation that it once was, could not afford to have its reputation damaged. Microsoft, on the other hand, has attained the status of the air we breathe -- whether we like it or not, we have to live with it. They can afford to inflict inferior products on the marketplace, and let a product evolve through customer feedback, through many versions, until it attains a level of quality and acceptability that Apple shoots for in its initial release of a product itself.

Zune HD, the latest release of the much unlamented Zune -- Microsoft's apologetic response to Apple's iPod, actually is beginning to look good. Looking good -- and even working well -- may not necessarily translate into big gain in market share. Music players are a consumer, lifestyle product, that are purchased only partly for their functional uses; a big part of a lifestyle product's attraction are its perceived intangible values, including styling and the satisfaction of emotional needs. Apple has pretty much cornered that market and Microsoft, despite its numerous earnest attempts, isn't going to gain a hip image in a hurry. Nerds aren't hip. Period.

Nevertheless, two cheers at least, to Microsoft for gaining on the styling front. Zune HD's styling is an entire universe away from what passed for styling in the original Zune. Zune v. 1 looked positively frumpy, despite having a delicious looking screen. Zune HD would look nice next to a Porsche sports car. In fact, its design is vaguely reminiscent of styling exercises coming out of Porsche Design. Maybe Microsoft has decided to actually hire designers from reputed institutions. Good thing too.

All of Apple's products tend to hew to a common philosophy and typically employ a common design language (e.g., Apple's Snow White design language from the 1980's developed by frog design); they are usually stark, uncluttered and minimalistic, preferring to eliminate features and attributes considered not critical. An Apple product is often easily recognized as one even without explicit identifying labels . Microsoft's products do not appear to follow any single, recognizable design philosophy. Microsoft's strategy tends to be "to offer more for less" than the competition, and the company typically follows the market rather than create new ones.

The Zune HD appears to be the first product from Microsoft that, despite its being a market follower, is attempting to establish a distinct physical identity: with its sharp angles in contrast with the relentlessly curved iPhone, it is the "un-iPhone". Palm's Pre, on the other hand, tries to be 'more curvy than the iPhone' in physical appearance, although it has many features distinct from the iPhone. The Zune HD appears more masculine, more muscular -- perhaps this was a conscious design choice made by the HD's designers to appeal to males who probably outnumber female users of portable media players.

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