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

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