Microsoft’s Next Bomb: the Zune

Brown Microsoft ZuneCan anyone think of a dumber name for a product?

I mean, really, come on: the “Zune”. What the heck is a Zune?

Although they haven’t said it in so many words, Microsoft’s latest foray into consumer electronics is designed to be an iPod-killer.

In fact, the first Zune that will hit the streets, probably in mid-November, will be the definitive iPod poseur. If the iPod is downtown chic, the Zune is suburban me-too.

To look at it, the Zune is the iPod’s ugly cousin. It’s all boxy and made entirely of plastic. It’s sorta shaped like an iPod. It kinds acts like an iPod. But, buyer beware, it’s not an iPod.

Like, get this: the Zune has a scrollwheel that doesn’t scroll. What’s up with that? The iPod’s clickable scrollwheel is an iconic interface element that defines its ease of use. It’s what makes an iPod an iPod.

(So considering Apple’s proclivity for vicious protection of their intellectual properties, that’s probably why Microsoft ripped it off in no more than appearance.)

Anyone who’s ever used an iPod will pick up the Zune, run their thumb around that dominant circular control element and be instantly baffled. It doesn’t scroll?

No, brother. That’s just an up-down button that’s, um, shaped like a circle. You know, so it looks like an iPod?

Oh, but hey, the Zune has an FM radio receiver. That’s kinda cool – if you live in media real-time. I’ll stick to podcasts and catch my content when it pleases me, thank-you.

One thing the Zune does have over the iPod is wireless connectivity. Expect this to feature in lots of marketing hype.

It’s kind of cool, I guess, that you’ll be able to temporarily “share” your music with other Zuners (if anyone else actually buys one of these things) by wirelessly transferring songs to their player. They’ll get a 3-day lease on the track before it self-destructs.

The major drawback to the wireless feature: battery life. A similarly sized and powered device, Sony’s PSP handheld video game console, gets about 45 minutes of playing time when its wireless capabilities are enabled. Expect about the same from a Zune.

In comparison, the iPod gets about 20 hours of playback time.

But the Zune won’t just fail on just its technical and aesthetics merits, or lack thereof.
It’s more about the Zune’s attitude. It’s not cool. It’s not hip. I mean, the iPod comes in funky disco colours and the Zune comes in, um, tweed brown.

The iPod is all about giving the people what they want, which is the freedom to easily take their music with them wherever they go.

The Zune isn’t about making life better and easier for people. It’s about tricking consumers into not buying an iPod. The Zune promises more stuff you don’t really need or want. It’s an iPod bulked up with features just to pad advertising copy.

Another reason that the Zune will fail, though, is in its software.

From the start to finish, the iPod and iTunes system is flawless and intuitive. With just a few clicks and in just a few seconds you can purchase music and then put it in your pocket to take with you wherever.

Microsoft’s trying to rip this off, too, with a new Zune store (yep, like the iTunes store), but the company’s track record has demonstrated that their software is neither flawless nor intuitive.

Let’s take bets now: how long before the first Zune virus takes advantage of some glaring security hole that Microsoft overlooked? How long will it take the first Zune worm to transmit itself across North America via some flaw in the device’s wireless capabilities? MInutes? Hours? Okay, I’ll put 10 bucks on a day, just to be fair.

To gain some instant market-share, you might think the Zune would be competitively priced. There’s no official word on this yet, but expect a 30-GB model to hit the streeets at $300 US. Considering Apple just dropped the price of their new-and-improved 30-GB iPod to $250 and their 80-GB model is only $100 more than that, the Zune will have to go pretty low to persuade consumers away from the industry standard player.

But let’s get back to that name: the Zune. Who thought that one up? What does it mean?

Could you look your friends in the eye and state in a steady voice that you just bought a “Zune” without blushing? I doubt it. What you’d in fact say would go something like this: “I just picked up one of those Microsoft things that’s kind of like an iPod, but not as good. Wanna check it out?”

Um, no thanks, dude. I’ll stick with a clickwheel that actually works.


First published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 15, 2006.

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