Sympathy for Microsoft ...

We are watching a handful of companies battle to support our work and learning lives, our communication, entertainment and social network. The good guys are no longer quite such good guys (Apple, Google?). And the CEO of Facebook can characterize Microsoft as the underdog.

My title is prompted by the very fair review of the Zune HD by David Pogue from a couple of years ago. He suggests sympathy for Microsoft is an appropriate response because despite the many great qualities of the Zune, its success is not assured.

No, the problem is the iPod's head start -- its catalog of music, movies, apps and accessories are ridiculously superior to the Zune's -- and the Zune's reputation as the player for weirdos and losers. Among the under-25 set, "Zune" is a punch line.
It's an outdated joke; the Zune HD player isn't perfect, but it's every bit as joyful, polished and satisfying as its rival. The question is whether Microsoft will stick it out long enough to close the catalog gap, the ecosystem gap and the image gap. [Tuning In a Zippier Zune]

It looks as if his question may have just been partly answered by current rumors that Microsoft is going to end of life the Zune HD device because of "tepid demand". I say 'partly' because the software and Zune Pass service continue, especially as they are a part of the Windows Phone 7 configuration. Whatever the outcome, the Zune still has a tiny share of the market. The Zune HD may have arrived too late and received too little support.

Now as regular readers of this blog know, I have a Zune HD. I am one of those sad people the Zune news stories refer to in such pitying terms. I bought it a while after leaving my iPod on a plane. I was influenced by several reviews which liked it, but to be honest, I was largely motivated by a desire to get something that was not an iPod. This is partly because of the flatness of the iTunes experience, partly in resistance to total Apple envelopment of a market, and partly because of the Zune Pass subscription model.

My expectations were greatly exceeded. I love it. This is the first time I have ever been sad to hear that a consumer product might disappear. And whatever Microsoft's business reasons, I am a little frustrated as a consumer that something I like so much has clearly not got a lot of ongoing attention. I mentioned three elements. Consider these comments ...

  1. Software: The software design is fluid, beautiful and incredibly responsive (David Pogue).
  2. Hardware: The Zune HD continues to rank among our all-time favorites in terms of industrial design (Engadget)
  3. Service: Once you are used to having the unlimited tracks that Spotify or Zune grants you it is difficult to revert back to the older paid-for methods of iTunes. (Daily Telegraph)

I have found the subscription model - Zune Pass - congenial. Now, as I have noted before, my musical knowledge and tastes are shallow, so it may not be difficult to satisfy me. However, I have found that I now listen to more and range more widely than I would have before. Above all I love the experience. The Metro Design elements work really well. The type is lovely. Pictures are used imaginately. Navigation is natural and satisfying: it invites you to explore. It is also ideal for those interstitial reading moments, as bios and related artists are included on the device. The Zune marketplace and PC software works reasonably well, although it can occasionally feel a little unfinished. Integration with TV and Xbox are welcome. It is all that bit more edgy than we expect from Microsoft. And after 18 months or so, it is still a pleasure to use. So long as you only want a music player, that is. Not many apps here.

I borrowed a Windows Phone 7 device - a Samsung Focus - from work recently. I liked it quite a bit, although I only got to use it for a couple of days. And interestingly my children liked it too. Why don't we know more about it? asked my daughter. Again, the Metro Design elements are very attractive. That said, I wondered whether it was a bit too rich for a network environment, where you had to wait a little more for some transitions.

It will be intriguing to see how Microsoft fares with Windows Phone 7. They have taken a risk and gone with an alternative model to the Android/iPhone screen of apps. There is imagination and pleasure here as well as utility. Of course that may not be enough, as, as Pogue notes above, the whole ecology is important. Android may still have a geeky lift and Apple a cool one, but they are also fighting for world domination nonetheless. Microsoft is certainly the underdog here; it will be interesting to see if they remain so.

I don't follow Microsoft business activities or organization closely enough to understand the significance of the departure of Bach and Allard. Nor do I know who is responsible for the design of the Zune HD. Whoever they are, they deserve credit for making something very fine. I will miss it when the time comes to move on.


Incidental p.s. My son saved for an Motorola Atrix. He returned it because he found the Motorola Blur interface intrusive and they blocked the bootloader so he could not load alternative ROMs. In effect, the 'geeky' attractions of Android for him were diminished by product choices made by Motorola.


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