August 21, 2006
Who'll buy a Zune?
So details are beginning to leak about Microsoft's next iPod competitor, the Zune.
To recap for those who aren't following closely, Microsoft has decided to ditch its many hardware partners who have been part of the PlaysForSure initiative, and to recreate much of what has worked for the iPod. Instead of competing hardware providers offering a confusing mix of players, the Zune will be Microsoft-branded, allowing Redmond to keep control of the whole user experience, in the same way Apple does with the iPod.
PlaysForSure (which is, at best, on life support now) also allowed a plethora of online music stores, as Microsoft hoped to leverage brands familiar and credible to a variety of consumers, including MTV's URGE, Napster, and Wal-Mart. The Zune will apparently debut a monolithic Microsoft music store, much like the iTunes Music Store.
The single thing that I get the least is that the Zune is supposed to be Microsoft's "iPod killer for Christmas 2006", but it's apparently slated for release in mid-November.
Contrast that with the original iPod, which was released in October 2001, and was still widely considered a mistake long after the 2001 Christmas season had come and gone. Only wide-eyed Apple fanboys (like me) and people who had suffered through the hackish, inferior flash-based systems that came before (like me) were buying iPods for Christmas 2001 (and yes, I remember there were other hard drive players before the iPod).
So enter the Zune. There aren't really a ton of Microsoft fanboys out there, since Microsoft's hardware offerings are currently limited to Xbox, keyboards and mice. The Zune that's emerging from leaked stories around the net doesn't appear to offer any generational leap features when stacked up against a video iPod or nano. It's got a beefier processor than the current iPod video, but the next-gen iPod is expected Any Time Now.
There are hints of a Zune that interfaces with your Xbox, but those are out somewhere in the gray murky future. As a PSP fighter, leveraging Xbox titles, letting me transfer saved game state and highlight films to other Xboxes or the internet, you've got something new and interesting, but for now it's roughly on par with the iPod for features. WiFi may or may not ship with the first-gen box; there's a menu item for it in the prototypes.
For now, it appears the killer app at launch will be FM transmission and reception, so that you could listen to my Zune's music from your Zune, encouraging social sharing (but not sharing like file sharing, since you couldn't then take my music with you). They'll also include content at purchase, including EMI music videos.
From a marketing perspective, Microsoft faces a difficult task: They've got to simultaneously launch a brand, a device, and an online service, and they've got to do it between mid-November and Christmas, or concede another holiday season in which the iPod will get even more entrenched with consumers. From a decade-long perspective, it could happen, but it's not a threat to iPod hegemony for Christmas 2006.
My prediction: This thing won't sell well until it can move beyond the iPod.
Some Zune blogs:
Notes that there's been no discussion of support for podcasting in the Zune details released so far, and that Microsoft is likely to include content at purchase.
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