Zuney Tunes

Microsoft has announced Zune, its new personal media brand and associated download service. There is much speculation about the player and its features. Pundits are weighing in on the validity of the rumored "closed" system (similar to Apple's iPod/iTunes environment)--good idea, bad idea? There will be video, but not until later, it will be wireless, but only 802.11b, blah, blah, blah. If you want to read rumors about rumors, just Google "zune" and have at it.

I am trying to think of any Microsoft release of anything that anyone has ever cared about. Sure we use all of the stuff, but it's like trying to get excited about some new item from the stationery store. Wow! A new box of file folders with reusable tabs.

Microsoft has built the largest software company in the world by bringing second-best products to market and shoving them down our throats. Practically extinct Word Perfect is a better word processor than Microsoft Word. Back in the day, Quattro Pro was a better spreadsheet program than Excel--and almost any full-featured e-mail client is better than Outlook, but the world runs on Microsoft Office, and it's easy to understand why. 95 percent of desktop and laptop personal computers ship with a Microsoft operating system installed by the manufacturer.



So what might this tell us about Zune? Well, if history can be trusted to repeat itself, you can expect a second-best product that is very compatible with Windows. Will it find a market? Anything is possible, but the brand will have to offer demonstrable benefits to consumers in a way that no Microsoft product ever has.

The Zune brand can't stand for price. Price is not a market driver in MP3 players; starting price points for the technology are around the cost of taking a date to a movie. Entertainment and lifestyle purchases are want-driven, not need-driven, so price just won't make a market. The brand can't stand for choice; Apple offers everything that can be offered for money and the mesh networks offer the rest for free. It can't stand for ease-of-use; Apple owns easy. Besides, there's nothing easy about anything that is PC-based. And, lastly, it can't stand as a fashion accessory, because Windows-based PCs are office tools, not lifestyle choices.

So what might the unique selling principle of Zune be? Who is the target audience? Digital natives have a Pavlovian response to the Windows Start button--it makes them break out into a cold sweat. Are they really going to try to sell grown-ups a Microsoft Personal Media Device? Or, will they just pre-install all of the software on new computers and "update" your existing operating system cloaked as routine maintenance. Hmmm...

We'll have our answer by year-end. Zune brand products will be available at retail in time for the upcoming holiday season. Ecosystems, Trojan Horses and Personal Media are all good buzzwords, but they're going to need more than a Zuney name to take a bite out of Apple.

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