Thursday, November 9, 2006

Microsoft's Zune: An Impala or an Edsel?

Way back when the Ford Motor Company was trying to make some inroads against its giant rival General Motors, Ford used the then-fledgling science of consumer research to come up with a profile of what American consumers were looking for in the affordable car of their dreams. The research said that it had to be stylish, futuristic, sleek and powerful and so Ford went out and built what they thought would be people's dream car - the Edsel. The poor Edsel was a flop, burdened by hideous styling, me-too engineering and poorly designed features that drove buyers to GM's dreamy Chevrolet Impala in droves. The moral? If you promise your customer the product of their dreams, you had best deliver or they'll be a long time in forgiving you.

As David Pogue notes in The New York Times today, Microsoft may have dreamed up another Edsel in the form of its Zune multimedia handheld. Zune does lots of things that an Apple iPod doesn't do, most notably including the ability to allow Zune users to share photos and rights-protected music files with one another via a "beam it up" wireless networking capability, as well as a radio tuner. But as David points out, what's the point of having a wireless network that works only with other Zunes - you can't even communicate with a Windows PC via the wireless capability.

Like other half-hearted stabs at opening up DRM to accommodate file sharers, the emphasis is on pushing sales rather than creating a strong networking effect. Zune's proprietary DRM allows three plays of a shared file within three days, after which you're directed to Microsoft's download store. I like the first part but the three days is nutty - as David points out it's likely to turn off a song just as people are beginning to get interested in it to the point where they may want to share it with others. And of course there is no ability to share files with owners of other multimedia gizmos. Kind of lame, given the proliferation of multifunction phones that have cameras and entertainment systems built in. BTW, what's with the radio? Do kids with iPods really care about it any more?

With the marketing and merchandising effort that's about to be unleashed for Zune you can expect that more than a few are likely to be gift-wrapped for the holidays come December. But in trying to replicate the proprietary approach to technology and intellectual property management that Apple took to get the iPod off the ground Microsoft may have replicated iPod attributes that are least likely to succeed in the future. Like Apple Microsoft may find itself with a beachhead to nowhere in Zune, a bulky solves-everything machine that tries to be the half-answer to too many questions at once.

It's really a very simple formula that needs to be applied to mobile content: let rights-protected content go from one machine to any other machine via any convenient transport with controls that allow for fair use, competitive ecommerce options and the ability for users to add value to the content that can be reflected in subsequent transactions. Stop looking at machines, Microsoft: look at how people really add value to information and experiences. Come on, it's in you to do it, we know. See our definition of content on Wikipedia to get the fuller picture.
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