Microsoft's No-Zune Zone

Its new gadget takes a run at the iPod, without the user-friendliness.
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It's not looking good for the Zune.

Last Friday, the second-most watched clip on

YouTube

was about

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

long-expected, if not necessarily anticipated, attempt to take on

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

iPod digital music player. It showed a riff from late night talk show host Craig Ferguson who, if not quite a tech visionary, managed to strike a chord that resonated with some 225,000 online viewers.

"It has all the features of the iPod, only it's not as good, and it's five years too late," Ferguson said. "The name just makes me want to buy it," he added with clear sarcasm. "I think the market research guys said, 'What's going to appeal to the young people? Zune! It sounds good!' I'm gonna go on MySpace: 'Hey, the new Zune, it's really

crack-a-lackin

!'"

Just how accurate Ferguson's scenario is depends on how you define "crack-a-lackin." If you mean, as Ferguson did, a bit of recent slang that already feels stale -- well, that sort of applies to the Zune.

But what if we give the word a new meaning -- say, an unpleasant sensation somewhere between frustration and disappointment. In that case, the Zune is about as crack-a-lackin as it gets.

The Zune does have some enhancements over the iPod, and Microsoft has trumpeted them loud: a built-in FM radio, an appealingly large screen and the ability to beam music and photos wirelessly to other Zunes.

But there's a lot of other things that will keep the Zune from offering Microsoft the dominance it craves in the digital music market. The battery is not easily replaced, and it has a shorter life than the iPod's, according to several reviews. Other takes on the player, written by people who presumably know a thing or two about technology, reported serious troubles installing its software.

"People wonder whether Microsoft's underdog will overtake Cupertino's

Apple's California headquarters reigning juggernaut this holiday season. To be honest, we wish it could, since we too are getting kind of sick of seeing the iPod on top," began one review on the influential tech site

Engadget

.

"The Zune is a player riddled with a lot of small issues -- death by a thousand cuts," the review concluded. "Would we recommend the product for purchase, like, right now? Not a chance."

This is too bad for Microsoft. Years after anyone would have expected it to counter the most successful product in the history of archrival Apple, Microsoft rushed out a slightly undercooked product to hit the holiday season.

But the initial reactions to the Zune are negative enough that they will not only affect the holiday sales, they may also taint the brand for years to come.

However, the Zune also is emblematic of another, bigger problem Microsoft is facing -- its awkward effort to come up with a digital rights management solution that will please movie and music companies while not alienating customers.

The goal of digital rights management is one that wouldn't cause most people who buy music to balk -- protecting copyright owners from piracy. But in many cases, effective DRM has meant constraining limits on features that many consumers take as a given. Microsoft, in searching for a comprehensive DRM solution for digital media, has too often erred on the side of the constraints.

The constraints on the Zune are, in light of other music players, crazy. Songs bought at the Zune Marketplace (Microsoft's answer to iTunes) won't play on non-Zune devices. Songs bought elsewhere -- iTunes,

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

Music, Rhapsody -- won't play on the Zune. Songs beamed to other Zunes expire after three days, or three listens, whichever come first.

There are growing concerns that the kinds of DRM restrictions plaguing Zune also will hamstring Microsoft's Vista upgrade to Windows, which is due to be released over the next few months. If those fears pan out, then it will pull the legs out from under the biggest potential driver of Microsoft future revenue growth -- and that won't go over well with investors. (Ironically, there are reports that Zune is not yet compatible with Vista.)

Above all, Microsoft seems to have lost sight of how important simplicity is. It was one thing to force complex software on users when Microsoft ruled PC software. It's another to keep at it when there are many alternatives in the market -- as is the case today, not just with music players, but increasingly on open-source rivals to Microsoft's core products.

Given all that, it's not much of a surprise that the image that is quickly becoming the most closely associated with Zune is the

photo on the page telling you that your Zune software didn't install correctly. The photo of a young woman with her face scrunched up in some intense emotion is just bizarre enough to stick in your memory. It's spreading like a virus in the tech blogosphere.

People who have enough time on their hands have puzzled over what the expression is on the woman's face. Pleasure? Pain? Anger?

Or maybe something else entirely. Why, it must be the very look of

crack-a-lackin

.