What happens when you don’t get it….

Well, the blogroll pulled up an interesting article on the Zune, and the iPod. The author, Mike Elgan, writes in some length around how Zune might take on iPod by becoming the anti-iPod. His article for your reference and enjoyment is at: Zune: So you want to be an iPod killer

I would venture Mr. Elgan has a few interesting ideas, but pointing to sites like iPod Hacks as the basis that iPod users want open and complex devices with great extensibility and customization is a bit of wanton leap past the region of statistical extrapolation. iPod Hacks is a cool site, and it’s in the best vein of the hacker ethic of “What can I do with this device?”, but it’s not like the millions of iPod users are in any way represented by the small base of users (proportionally) that frequent and utilize iPod Hacks information and software. I’ve kept an eye on iPod Hacks myself, as from my hacker perspective, it’s cool what people can do with this. But would I ratchet my iPod into that and lose the seamless, best music player functionality and integration I enjoy? No chance.

Mr. Elgan makes a number of very fundamental, and geek-mindset mistakes in his article. He accurately describes Microsoft’s company strengths, and extensively goes into the abysmal customer experience that the Zune is when removed from the packing. Then he loses his grip on consumer products and launches into what he wants for a music player.

Dismissing that user experience out of hand is simply foolish, especially in a market entry. Every one of the customers that goes through that pain is more likely to diss the Zune and go iPod unless they are either anti-Apple or blindly pro-Microsoft. They were trying to buy a music player, and they got a box of pain. Waving the hand of providence and MSFT-get-v3.0-right is just naive. That experience is why Apple is rolling downhill like a consumer-rampaging avalanche of revenue in the music player business. They built a device that absolutely excels at being a music player. That’s it. Now it does small video as well, but that’s not how it got to dominate the market.

Is Apple paying attention to it? You bet. And they will compete with it fiercely, and it will likely benefit the marketplace as various pressures and pricing comes to bear based on the acceptance of the varying offers. I don’t think we’re going to see iPod price drops thanks to Zune based on the current offering though.

This touches on the bigger fallacy that Mr. Elgan puts forward that simply isn’t true except in geeks. I quote:

History shows that the functionality of stand-alone gadgets always gets folded into multipurpose devices. Apple’s instinct to maximize elegance at the expense of extensibility made them No. 1 in the media player market, but the future belongs to customizable, multifunction players.

I’m afraid I can’t come up with anything that actually supports this “historic” assertion. Smart phones are eclectic and in no way make up the majority of the devices people have. I know even some tech-heads that are tossing the Palm/iPaq family of gadgets for paper and pencil, and going with a more elegant, simple phone that works better as a phone such as the RAZR or some of the Sony/Nokia offerings. Last time I checked, the mass-market still has watches, and those multi-function wildly customizable digital monstrosities of the 80s died a deserved death. Convergence only works when the result isn’t a compromise. When the BlackBerry got the phone part right in addition to mobile email, without trying to edit your excel spreadsheet on a 2″ screen, that succeeded. The first few BlackBerries that had just the office functionality with mobile email were just mobile email devices, because to the majority of users, the office app functionality was too big of a compromise.

The point of market volume as an OEM is a side argument without merit or relevance. To Mr. Elgan’s point, I know lots of people that refer to a BlackBerry, but nobody that refers to a “Windows Smart Phone”. The Windows software is customized for each phone. The fact that Java is on more cell phones than the Windows system is just as irrelevant. There is no buzz around Java on a cell phone, and there is no buzz around Windows Smart Phones. there’s a heck of a lot around BlackBerry though.

What I can’t understand is why this all seems OK to people, regarding the Zune hitting the market so very poorly. It’s a panic release obviously, and shows that the consumer experience, and more importantly, the Microsoft Brand, doesn’t seem to matter very much. Microsoft, who attached themselves to a brand of “Plays for Sure” and then walked away from it, have lost brand value in the parent name as well as killing the goodwill the Plays for Sure initiative had. Branding does matter to the consumer, and to market success. Zune with this sort of offering is detracting from the Microsoft brand. Apple delays when something isn’t ready for the market or when it’s not polished enough. Microsoft releases it and tries to fix it in a later release, and causes a pile of grief to the customers in the mean time.

I’d like to leave with one last question to him. What about all those other devices that were more open, extensible, more functional, and cheaper? Those things like the Creative Zen, also widely hacked and customized, and with more features, more product lines and configurations, and cheaper to boot? Microsoft ditched them for their own, non-compatible solution. I’m sorry, but based on the way the Zune is entering the marketplace and what it’s looking like and feeling as an initial customer experience, the head of the Zune initiative should be looking for a new job. The number of mistakes that were made, especially that irritate the customer, makes this an abysmal failure. The XBox 360 was a light year beyond this in out-of-the-box experience.

Canada had it – lost it – had it again – lost it again….

Tim O’Reilly put up an interesting piece on cell phone carriers, and what he and others on the O’Reilly staff really want from a carrier. It’s over at Ten Things I Want From My Phone: “

The big thing is good services with fair pricing. Notable rants that apply to us in Canada as well include the locked, debilitated cell phones from carriers (not to mention the North America-only CDMA nonsense. (The majority of the planet is on GSM. Plan the transition.) The irony is that twice we’ve had this wonderful situation of having a “JetBlue” of Cell Service as they put it, only to have it bought up by incumbents, and crippled to various degrees.

ClearNet was an absolutely outstanding cell provider in Canada. Cheap entry, good phones, simple plans, and quite a la carte in model. It was CDMA, but that was before the GSM standard really took off. I was a long time happy ClearNet customer. Then, they were bought by Telus. Within 4 months, there was a noticeable change in service and pricing plans, and an emergence of nickel-and-diming mentality. Thus endeth the ClearNet enlightenment. The only thing that survived was the branding and ad agency that was adopted, quite wisely, by Telus. Now even those ads are losing their elegance and getting… “busy”.

So after looking around, and deciding that GSM was the way to go so I don’t need to rent a cell phone when I do wind up on the odd business trip to Europe, I came upon Fido. Again, a great upstart, GSM, clear plans, excellent metropolitan service (the downside being only metropolitan service, but that was just fine for me, and they were new to the game) and again, a great relationship with the customer. That was an enjoyable few years as well, and then Rogers came in and bought them. Now to Rogers’ credit, they haven’t killed them off, they are more a subsidiary, but I still have notices a number of new “nickel-and-dime” bits seeping into the bill starting shortly after the acquisition, and the service was not as good as before, so I needed to add $5 a month to also enable the use of Rogers “extended area” cell footprint. Since that got me access outside of the metro areas, I was ok with that, but still a bit annoying. Essentially the company got an advantage from the purchase of Fido, whereas the customers essentially got nothing, or in some areas slightly less than before.

Now, I’m not against company purchases and it makes good business sense, but it seems there simply are not enough competitors in this marketplace to settle it out. In Europe, you get charges only for calls you make. Incoming calls are only charged if they are roaming calls and you’re on a North American carrier. But the model is caller pays. That makes a great deal of sense, and encourages cell phone use. In Canada, and the US, we get double-tapped by the carriers. Charged on both sides for both parts of the conversation. To say nothing of downright ridiculous data plans.

So as a thought, what if, in this municipal wifi flurry of excitement, we take a bit of public infrastructure and enable the marketplace? If the wifi towers go up in a city, and providing the antenna physics and such work out, allow junior carriers to rent space on the towers at a reasonable cost. The wifi towers should have fiber access to them at any rate to enable the data busses on to the Internet and back to the carrier or exchange point, so adding a cell station (GSM please) as well isn’t a huge capital outlay. The switches aren’t cheap, but it beats plowing cable and negotiating the tower placement. This would enable small cell companies to get rolling, even on a per-city basis, and get some innovation and competition in. Plus they aren’t the huge takeover targets as they don’t own as much of the infrastructure, and perhaps those towers are limited to low-market cap companies or otherwise don’t allow the density per cell some of the big players need. They are enablers, but gradually companies would outgrow them.

Much like the cable and telephone cables that are plowed into our neighbourhoods and houses, the airwaves are in many ways a public infrastructure. They are limited in supply, and are on public land with granted right-of-ways for the service they provide. Lock-in on a public infrastructure is just anti-competitive. The cost of that plant has been paid for dozens of times over by the customers. Otherwise Telus and others wouldn’t be heading to be an income trust. If you’re not making a healthy profit, an income trust isn’t a good idea.

I want the second coming of ClearNet, but maybe done by Orange or T-Mobile from the UK or someone in the leading countries of cellular service, not the backwaters of North America. What would you like to see in Canada for cell service?

Currently playing in iTunes: Razzle Dazzle by Richard Gere & Cast

Shame Mr. Harper and Ms. Ambrose

We’re officially an environmental “fossil” according to the Globe and Mail today. What is it going to take for Canada, land of vast expanse of beautiful wilderness and landscapes, of bountiful natural resources, quits squandering our heritage and our future and wakes up and takes some initiative?

Canada has the ultimate opportunity to vault into the future and be the next supplier of tomorrow’s energy capabilities as well. We currently export oil, gas, uranium, generated power and refined petroleum in large quantities. We are reaping a very healthy profit from current high energy prices. The world has started to shift towards more alternative energy. It is currently an emerging market, one that will ultimately in various forms displace the current energy systems. Not immediately, and possibly not in our lifetimes even, but it will happen. Our current systems are inefficient and damaging. There is no reason to preserve them if better alternatives present themselves.

Those alternatives are presenting themselves. Not just solar, geothermal, biofuels, wind and tidal power. Leaps in efficiency and distributed generation. Better ways to use current energy sources more efficiently and less polluting in operation. Those are being pioneered in many places, and deployed aggressively in many nations, while Canada sits idly by, resting on our profitable laurels rather than investing those profits to lead the way into the future.

I’ve written to the Alberta government as noted before in this blog, and I’ve written to our environment minister, Rona Ambrose, asking that we lead environmentally and technologically into a cleaner future. The idea that doing so in any way undermines our current resource industries, especially in Alberta, is naive in the extreme. The growth curve on these technologies, and the time to mature them, is far beyond any reasonable business outlook on our current corporations and industries. US demand for our energy products will not disappear in a decade, but there will be increasing demand, some of which will not be fuelled by our current energy systems. It is this new, emerging market of both conscience and efficiency that will be high margin and growing as we move forward, and right now that market will be served by companies in the US, Israel, China and other nations in the Europe and throughout the world.

Canada is not encouraging the deployment or creation of these companies in our borders, so we will be importing the technologies and expertise, and we will lose our lead in energy supply and technology.

I had thought companies like Shell and BP were leading the thoughts in having solar divisions (the largest in the world, in addition to Sharp) and biofuels, but now they have divested those companies into spin-offs and divestitures to better reflect a profitable business to wall street. Short term gain for long term sacrifice. If you’re a shareholder, congratulations, but remember to sell. Consumers are finally forcing the car companies to get efficient-minded rather than having 8000 pounds of material driven by in excess of 350 horsepower. To move a single individual to and from work. A bit of a waste. Europe is leading the way in forcing the efficiency. And low and behold, the car companies CAN indeed make an efficient car, far superior to the offerings most of us use for transportation today.

I resent being labelled a fossil of the environment in this wonderful country of Canada. Mr. Harper and our government (and that ALSO includes the Liberal government that likewise did nothing for Kyoto or alternative energy industries) must take some initiative and get their corporate supporters to realize that the government pushing the regulations in will create a global opportunity more than it will cause any real damage. The other nations of the world are moving to better products and more efficient systems, and we are left, here in the past, slowly turning into an archaeologic dig of the future.

Currently playing in iTunes: Summertime Blues (Live at Leeds) by The Who

THIS is what an “iPod killer” looks like?

It’s painfully obvious the bulk of the media has no clue how to deal with quality over features and performance. Which is why every single feature-ridden, cheaper-than-dirt, bling-bling outfitted competitor to the iPod has been labelled an iPod killer…. by everyone except the people buying them.

Witness the “try anything” approach of Microsoft in that they released the “Plays for Sure” moniker two years ago, which of course did basically nothing at all for the music players outside of the Apple brand, and ensured that they would seek to cannibalize each other as there was no flow-through revenue ecosystem like Apple has with iTMS, iTunes and the iPod. But hey, “Plays for Sure” should still stand for something if Microsoft really cares about the consumers.

Judging from this I would say that Microsoft is worried about DRM and lock-in, and very little else. The work-around Microsoft is offering to get songs from its own store to its own player is the same avenue you have to take tracks from the iTunes Music Store and put them on the Creative Zen, Microsoft Zune or any other, which is to say, burn it to an audio disc, and then re-rip it to a pure MP3 format. Of course, any pure MP3 format will automatically import into iTunes and play on your iPod, as will any AAC (MPEG-4) audio file and may other wondrous standard files. The lock-in is there, and it’s around the digitally purchased music.

And this is the point really. An “iPod Killer” isn’t just the gadget. As Apple is only too aware and far too ingrained in, it’s the experience. It just has to work. This kind of disconnect between the vendor’s first store, and the new gadget and ecosystem that’s locked in, is a serious rupture in the brand identity of Microsoft in the music arena. This hurts the reputation grievously because, in the eyes of the average consumer, Microsoft music doesn’t work with my new Microsoft player. End of experience. The technical details and work-around are all there, and you can get it sorted with a chunk of work, but the point is the experience that is remembered is “I had to fiddle with it.” or “It didn’t even work with the music I bought six months ago from Microsoft’s music store!”

Personally, I feel DRM is a great hindrance, but then I also know that there’s a chunk of people out there that feel they should be able to get it for free if they can figure out how. Dishonest people cause DRM, and the rest of us honest folk are the ones it inconveniences. That said, I’ve never had a single problem with Apple’s FairPlay system, and I’ve transited across two macs and two iPods over my history with it, without a hitch, enabling all the Macs in our house to play the purchased music shared locally and legally, all within the enabling model of iTunes.

If the customers mattered, they would be able to download the tracks again in the Zune format, or would be given credit for that number of tracks with the purchase of a Zune, or at least some sort of nod to say “Thanks” for the patronage and faith in the failed first Microsoft Music Initiative. But then, as I note, this isn’t an iPod killer, because it’s not about the user.

I’ve tried (not bought) a number of the early and mid-iteration MP3 players, and none of them just work and let me do what I want, which is find, sort and listen to my music. Easily and without a pile of other features I don’t use. My whole 250+ CD collection of purchased music (both real disc and iTunes) all in my pocket. That’s what the iPod is about, and until this sort of nonsense stops and the focus is on the consumer that is shelling out for the music and the player, there won’t be a challenger, let alone a killer in the midst.

Disclaimer: I’m a Mac and iPod owner (obviously), work on Windows, still have Linux on servers and occasionally deal with Solaris still.

Currently playing in iTunes: Surface to Air by The Chemical Brothers