There’s an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That being the case, Microsoft reminds me of a manic-depressive on the “up” end of the cycle. It runs around like a madman, pushing its latest idea as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then when it doesn’t quite turn out that way, it quietly drops the thing and moves on to their next obsession.
The latest incarnation of this bizarre behavior is the “Zune,” a kind of handheld-meets-iPod device with a 30 GB hard drive and Wi-Fi. Much ado has been made of it, and it’s expected competition with the iPod, but there’s a question that has to be asked: what does the Zune actually do to be worth such hype?
If you can answer that, you know something I don’t. As far as I can tell, the Zune isn’t particularly compelling in terms of hardware, software, or capabilities. But that’s not stopping Microsoft from putting together a fabulously expensive PR campaign to tell people that the Zune is so wonderful that they have to have one, even if nobody knows what it does. Of course, that’s not exactly a new tactic for Microsoft.
Microsoft’s line of cure-all miracle products goes back a long, long way. Before the Zune, it was the Origami. Before that, it was PlaysForSure, the Windows Smartphone, tablet PCs, airpanels — remember those? — network PCs, Microsoft Reader, and a dozen other ideas which they could have easily realized were in need of polishing if they just sat down for a minute and thought about it.
Just take the Zune, for instance. Okay, you want to build a competitor to the iPod, plus video and Internet functions. So why did Microsoft feel it necessary to write up a whole new interface and OS flavor for this device? They’re already sitting on Windows Mobile 5, which besides having ample media capabilities, would also be able to bring gaming, a better Internet experience, and a library of available software to the party. Just slap on a few customizations like a simplified media player and launcher for finger-friendly usage.
Or Bluetooth. Bluetooth headphones are incredibly prolific these days, and there are a ton of iPod accessories designed to add Bluetooth stereo to the things. So naturally, if you’re building a killer multimedia device with wireless capabilities, the obvious thing to do is completely leave out Bluetooth. At least, it’s the obvious thing for Microsoft.
And where, do tell, is the killer app? Why should anyone want to buy a Zune instead of, say, a video iPod, or one of the dozens of other kinds of multimedia devices available?
On top of all this, the Zune is incompatible with the much-hyped Microsoft DRM initiative called “PlaysForSure.” While they’re both Windows Media, Zune music won’t work on PFS devices, and PFS music won’t work on the Zune. So not only did Microsoft just royally screw everyone who bought music using PlaysForSure on the guarantee that it would be usable on many different devices, but they further screwed every company that built a PFS capable device.
Which brings me to the other fatal flaw in Microsoft’s rapid-turnover development plans: nobody can trust them. Microsoft’s initiatives have the shelf life of ice cubes in Baja. PlaysForSure may be the newest casualty, but it’s hardly the only one.
Already they’re pushing a new class of mobile device, meaning that their big promises about the future of the UMPC are going to be forgotten, just as with tablet PCs and Pocket PCs in turn. The DRM will change again in a few months, as it did a few months ago and a few months before that. And the Zune hardware will probably be dropped as soon as Microsoft sees something shiny in the distance.
Microsoft has repeatedly sent a clear message: buy a product from us, and you’ll likely get screwed. Either we’ll change the DRM, leaving you locked in a walled garden, or we’ll simply move on to another market.
A handful of Microsoft’s less ridiculous ideas have survived the cullings over the years, but that has as much more to do with sheer odds — and the fact that they’re bound to trip over something workable sooner or later — than it does with planning or market research. Microsoft has done very little lately for Pocket PCs, tablet PCs, or most of the other survivors, instead leaving them to fend for themselves with the help of other companies and the more loyal user base.
It’s deeply ironic that one of the biggest companies in the tech sector is so completely unable to figure out where it’s going, or to support its own products. Perhaps, having a guaranteed revenue stream from their near-monopoly on OS sales, Microsoft has lost the ability to actually design and market a competitive product. But either way, they’ve repeatedly demonstrated that they’re unable or unwilling to extend their attention span beyond two weeks, which is a pity. Because until they do, the Zune and all the other toys like it are only as good as the commitment behind them.
p.s. A word of explanation about the title of this editorial. The name “Zune” is quite close to a Hebrew word whose translation I can’t repeat in a family-friendly context like this, but which is roughly equivalent to a rude English word for single-cell fertilization.
I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.