Can Microsoft munch a chunk?

Microsoft this month announced that it is developing its own ‘Zune’ branded media player device, which will compete directly with Apple’s iPod. Of course, with the latter occupying such a dominatory market position, Gates & Co. will need a perfectly considered and sexy offering to have any hope of taking a bite of Mr. Jobs' market share. Here’s what Bill and his team should bear in mind…

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By  Matthew Wade Published  July 31, 2006

|~||~||~|Since its launch five years ago, Apple has sold a rather impressive 58 million iPods. Thus, and prepare now for the pun, Microsoft has decided it wants to take a chunk of this juiciest of markets. Of course, a myriad of MP3 competitors have also been battling it out during Apple's domination, the likes of Creative, Samsung, iRiver and more recently Sony offering arguably the best challengers, but their market share has never amounted to more than 15- or 20%, which is nothing to shout about. Why? Generally speaking, less attractive players with niggly music software or tiny capacities do not huge successes make. To be in with a shot of putting consumers off their fruit, Microsoft must first learn from Apple’s successes then. Key question #1 then: Why has the iPod sold? Primarily, because it looks the business. As far as I can work out (and to put things in perspective here, I’ve owned or used pretty much every key MP3 player that’s hit the market to date), it’s been a case of 90% great design, which has pulled in fashionista tech-heads, and thereafter Joe Bloggs and family, followed by 10% useability (which we’ll come to shortly). If Microsoft’s Zune doesn’t manage to look as good as the iPod, it simply won’t stand a chance of usurping the ubiquitous ‘pod. If however the Zune’s aesthetic appeal can match the iPod’s dazzling looks, how then can Microsoft use this great starting point to then go one better than Apple? That’s Key question #2. And the answer is, it’s all in the useability. The iPod's menu-driving click-wheel might be pretty nifty, but the whole process of getting songs onto the damned thing is, well, hellish. How many people who own an iPod can actually say they’ve experienced what professional industry types call ‘seamless interaction’ with Apple’s iTunes software? I can’t say I’ve ever met one of these rare beasts (and I should know, because all the users I know think, “Hey, Matt’s a bit technical” and run to me aghast when their iTunes installations start playing up). How many users know where all their iTunes songs are on their PC? How often do the songs on the iPod and the songs on a desktop computer really match up? Niggly and over-complicated are words that don’t even begin to describe Apple’s iTunes software. Cue Microsoft’s opportunity… The ideal world scenario is that Microsoft takes Apple’s tried and tested ‘design-is-everything’ ethos and then adds to this the ease of use of flash-stick MP3 players (whereby you can drag-and-drop songs from your PC onto the device via the My Computer window. After all, almost every consumer can get their heads around that). Will the Zune do that? Well Microsoft's approach does seem set to include software, in that the Zune brand will cover music players and software. Still, that doesn’t mean all is lost, as the firm has being making reasonably useable software for decades, so if it can put the effort into making Zune less niggly than iTunes (and with error messages written in plain English please!) then it can still beat iTunes in the useability stakes. Stick alongside a great design and such everyman-bagging ease-of-use another few value-adds – such as wireless connection to other Zunes, which Microsoft is apparently considering – and the firm could have a seriously competitive offering on its hands. Additionally, I’m a little curious to see what the world’s record companies will have to say about users maybe being able to wirelessly share material that is under copyright, but that’s another matter entirely… ||**||

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