Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Zune's Uphill Battle

Microsoft has released their Zune player today. The temptation to title this post "Zune to be forgotten" or something is strong, but I'm not going to do it. I certainly am not a gadget analyst. I actually don't own an MP3 player (but think I may buy a used one off a co-worker...I know. Bleeding-freakin'-edge). I trust Gartie and on all things battery-powered and Cardo on all thing Music related.

That said, it seems to me that the Zune's positioning is off the mark. Microsoft is an enormous company, placed in the role of a challenger brand. That's fine. Nike has demonstrated time and again that big companies can act like scrappy players all the time.

But, if you're going to be a challenger, you need to very strongly and very clearly and very immediately communicate your differentiation from the market leader, in order to jolt consumers into moments of reconsideration.

For a portable MP3 player to do that, it needed to either be radically different, or to offer some bit of killer functionality. I don't know that the Zune does either. It seems that its breaktrhoughs are a built-in radio and the ability to swap songs with other Zuners. The radio is sort of interesting, but only in a convenience kind-of way. I can't imagine adding a radio tuner is a big technological feat, and I'm willing to bet that Apple eschewed it from iPods in the same way they decided not to have floppy drives in the first iMacs, or command lines from the first MacOS. It's a clear break with the past, which communicates to the consumer that this is a different sort of device. Why make a foot in the past a major part of a new release?

That leaves the ability to swap songs as the killer app. Oh wait, not swap songs: help Microsoft sell more music. That's right. The technology only allows the swapped song to be played three times on the receiving device. After that, you have the wonderful opportunity to buy they song. This may become the next great channel for music to spread virally, but I doubt it. Are people clamoring for this ability in the first place?

I watched CNN this morning and Soledad O'Brien literally interrupted the tech-biz reporter, who was talking about the Zune, to extoll the virtues of her new, $70 iPod Shuffle. The next time the story came through the cycle, she had gotten her iPod out of her office and demonstrated how cool it was that you could clip it, and essentially un-sold the Zune, and pitched the iPod.

I'm glad there's another competitor in this space. Few things should ever be sold completely by one company. But, if we're looking for an iPod-killer, I'm afraid this one may not cut it.
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Anonymous Tiger Tim said...

Well said. Just for the fun of doing nerdy graphics: Check out google trends, and you got there an iPod raking it in no doubt: spiking at well timed unveilings around the holidays. While down in the dumps, Zune crawls rock bottom. :-(
most cited mp3 players out of 2007

6:40 PM  

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