Issue: Microsoft introduces Zune
Commentary by: David
Yesterday, Microsoft launched Zune. Zune is a music/video player which Microsoft hopes can gain a foothold against the Apple iPod. We saw the Zune in person early last week. It is a slick, attractive little device. It has an impressive screen and easy-to-use controls. It can share songs wirelessly and has integrated software. In short it is impressive. And we believe without doubt that it will fail to dislodge Apple and iPod from its leadership role in this industry.
This is not because iPod has a head start. In fact, the story of the IBM PC itself (and much more recent work on the development of the Internet) confirms that the ‘first mover’ advantage is largely mythical. The difference between Zune and the iPod is deeper – a matter of marketing philosophy. Early reviewers of Zune like Walt Mossberg and Stephen Wildstrom sense this fundamental difference between iPod and Zune without being able to put their fingers directly on it.
So what does Steve Jobs know that Steve Ballmer doesn’t? Jobs understands that it’s not about the big picture – it’s about the details. iPod is a better brand than Zune not because the product strategy behind iPod is better (by embracing sharing, Zune may have the better business model), but because the attention to details is superior. Microsoft as a company believes in bringing innovation to the consumer as soon as possible. This comes with flaws, bugs and glitches, but the company makes a conscious tradeoff between degree of done-ness and time to market. Apple doesn’t release products until it believes it has perfected them to the smallest detail. Such is Apple’s obsession with detail that they have invented new manufacturing processes in order to make working products mirror their idealized concepts in execution.
You could say that this is micromanaging and it undoubtedly is. Did the second-generation iPod Nano really need an aluminum skin? No. Did the iMac need to be sheathed in transparent plastic? Certainly not. And yet it is just these details that make the product original and authentic.
Microsoft follows a different path and that is evident with Zune. The case is elegant, but larger than the iPod. The online store creates an intermediate currency “Microsoft points” which have a strange exchange rate with the dollar and seem to do nothing more than add a level of complexity to the process of purchasing music for the Zune. WiFi sharing works easily, but shared songs expire after three plays. And on and on. While each of these foibles is the result of a well-meaning compromise (the sharing issue is a compromise on protection for copyrighted music, for instance), they are clearly compromises and they compromise the design and usability of the Zune.
What Steve Jobs knows that we don’t is that we care more about the small details than the big issues. We love things that feel right, that reward us with an easy and engaging user experience. We cue on small things to build our opinion about the big issues. Most of all, we like things that work 100% at advertised. Even 99% feels like not half as much.