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.