Poll: To win, Zune will need a Bono. Who should it be?

Poll: To win, Zune will need a Bono. Who should it be?

Summary: Yesterday, Microsoft CEO came to our news room to talk about Microsoft's plans across a variety of fronts. The one that interests me is the company's plans for its forthcoming Zune.


Yesterday, Microsoft CEO came to our news room to talk about Microsoft's plans across a variety of fronts. The one that interests me is the company's plans for its forthcoming Zune. After Microsoft's first stab at taking the licensing route (as it did with Windows) failed to slow down the the Apple juggernaut (with iTunes software, the iTunes Music Store, and iPods), Microsoft's Zune basically duplicates Apple's one-stop shop approach. Content is purchased from the Zune Music/Movie Store (we'll call that ZMS) and it only works on the software (eg: Windows Media Player) and portable content players (eg: Zune Players) that Microsoft lets it work on.  Just like Apple.

One reason the Zune strategy is so relevant (and one that most people don't realize) is that the vendor who dominates the digital rights management market (as Apple is currently doing) is the company that may end up in control of a lot more given how telecommunications (particularly on the mobile front), entertainment, computer technology, and the Internet are so rapidly converging. Left unchecked, Apple could end up calling the shots for way more than just the record labels (Apple put them in their place earlier this year). For example, should Apple ship an iPhone (whch it's fully expected to do in 2007), the appeal of that phone, particularly if it solves the usability problems that most multimedia smartphones including Motorola's Q face today, could have Apple calling some shots for mobile operators like Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and Cingular that they'd rather not have Apple calling. 

In the interview (viewable via video here), News.com's Ina Fried asked Ballmer some Zune-related questions that I've taken the time to transcribe:

News.com: With Zune, you guys are trying to take on a pretty big leader in the iPod. It seems like you're making the bet that connecting with other users and wireless is going to be a big deal. How does that take off when, essentially today, there's no one that can talk to anyone?

Ballmer: We're going to come with Zune with 802.11 built-in. Of course, all PCs have 802.11 built-in. Of course, no iPods have 802.11 built-in, so there's certainly no disadvantage. We starting from scratch to build a community of entertainment afficianados both from the PC, from the XBox, you'll see that increasingly, from the Media Center, as well as from the portable music devices, the telephone, the mobile phone, etc. So, we start, but we're building on industry standard connectivity so we can go a lot of places.

News.com: Zune for now is all Microsoft doing the service, the software, the hardware.  Does it stay that way? Is that the goal?

Ballmer: You'll see as we get into things next year, that there will be more and more opportunities for third party innovation in kind of a managed and orchestrated way. Certainly, we're reaching out actively to partners who are in the phone business, the retail business, etc.  

Microsoft has been coy about how exactly third parties will get to partcipate in the Zune ecosystem and Ballmer clearly isn't dropping too many hints in his interview with Ina. Partners in the phone business? What that means is that Microsoft recognizes that mobile phones will not only have to be able to play ZMS-purchased music, they'll have to be able to acquire it through the mobile operators' networks. The implications, some of which have to do with Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system and some that don't, are many. The retail business? That's a harder one to put a finger on. Clearly, Zune will be available through retailers. But that's nothing new from a third party participation point of view. One possibility is that if you're a Zune owner, you'll be able to walk into a record store, sample some music, and download it to your Zune right there (with the retailer getting a cut of the sale). This would differentiate Zune from the iPod.

Another differentiator getting some press in the last couple of days has to do with how Zune players can share music via their Wi-Fi connections.  After an Internet rumor originally made the rounds saying that you might get ZMS credits if the person you share your music with buys that music, it's now clear that that isn't the case. But, going back to what Ballmer said, there is certainly some confusion about the role Wi-Fi will play, aside from connecting to other Zune players. Ballmer clearly pointed out the Wi-Fi is a standard form of wireless connectivity that is found on Zune as well as PCs. But earlier today, my fellow blogger Phil Windley wrote:

Zune players have Wi-Fi, but you can't use it to sync the player with your computer or even buy tunes at the Zune marketplace. 

Needless to say, I'm confused as I'm sure the market will be.

But, to be honest, Zune's technical prowess will very likely not matter for two reasons. First, it's simply the cost of admission to the game against Apple.  Either you've got certain basic functionality, or you don't. Second, if Apple isn't doing it, it's not because Apple didn't think of it. For example, adding a Wi-Fi radio to a portable media device won't do any wonders for battery life and battery life is absolutely a critical factor with portable audio players. But even if the Wi-Fi feature appears to be getting traction (or any other feature for that matter), rest assured Apple will have it too before Zune erodes even one percent of Apple's marketshare. It's not as if Apple is simply going to stand still.

Which brings me back to the headline of this post. Beating Apple, if that's possible, means realizing that this is a fashion play. It's not a technology play. To win, Microsoft will have to convince people like Robert Scoble's son and all of his buddies that a Zune is cooler to have than an iPod. That's like convincing Marlboro smokers that smoking some newfangled pink cigarette is cooler than smoking Marlboros (not that I think smoking is cool). Marlboro's cowboy mattered. A lot. As do Apple's white headphones and the iPod's association with the rock and roller that not only defines cool, but crosses generations in the process: U2's Bono. Microsoft will have to match that which raises the question: Who should be Zune's Bono?  Here are some choices. If I'm missing a biggie, let me know through the comments or by emailing me at david.berlind@cnet.com and I'll add him, her, or them.

[poll id=5]

Topic: Apple

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  • Obvious answer

    C'mon, it's so obvious. Given how much the Zune is an attempt to copy the iPod, you just have to look for the closest thing to Bono. Change one letter, and you've got it, Bozo the Clown.

    As far as the wifi goes, it's totally a non-starter. It's the one differentiating factor and it's been totally crippled as to be useless. I'd go one step further and say that even without the DRM, it's still pretty useless. iTunes has had sharing for years, and no one uses it. Everyone turns it off, as you don't really want a bunch of strangers looking at your playlists. Why would anyone suddenly want this with Zune?

    The key to the iPod is, as Mies van der Rohe taught us, less is more. As Steve Jobs said, the trick was taking things out of the iPod, not adding in more things.
    tic swayback
  • Missing the obvious

    Hey, Microsoft is still pining after its glory days with MSWin95. Which suggests the [b]perfect[/b] representative:

    Keith Richards.

    Not only did he play the classic "Start Me Up" but does a pretty good job of playing the "dead man" mentioned in the song, too.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Not only that . . .

      But they have to be careful and not mix any blood with that chemical flow going through his veins . . .
  • looked at Apple's recent patent filings lately?

    any one who has looked at Apple's recent patent filings (todays.. was the perfect solution for a screen the size of the whole box with no screen smudging) have to realize that Jobs and his crew must have been laughing their a$$es off when they saw what MS came up with... nice click wheel.. the next gen ipod will not have a click wheel.. Apples next gen iPod is going to leave the Zune in the dust... Zune... what a joke.

    i'm wondering if Apple purposefully let some of the cat out of the bag so as to let everyone know not to buy a Zune since it will shortly be an outdated POS.. a relic... like an 8 track...
    • I agree with you, but

      I don't like Zune's color scheme personally, and I do not intend to buy one. Sandisk for me with their iPod nano killer the Sansa 2-8 GB model. Sandisk is #2 in market share right now and they came out of nowhere.

      Next generation iPod might be slick, but I can't stand having iTunes on my system (I'm not alone) and would prefer a USB mass storage device like the Sandisk Sansa. I also don't like the fact that I can only buy an iTunes device from a single company.
      • iTunes is not required

        ---Next generation iPod might be slick, but I can't stand having iTunes on my system---

        No need to have iTunes on your system to use an iPod. Why deny yourself any longer?

        Control your iPod with WinAmp

        Use one of these many options;

        Or, use no software at all:
        tic swayback
        • Hey, tic . . .

          In order to update the OS on the iPod (which I like, actually. It's very rare to find anything outside of The computing world where you can get free upgrades for the device), you end up having to do it through iTunes. Kinda like what MS did windows updates and IE for years . . .
          • Not so, you can download updates directly

            As far as I can tell, all of Apple's updates for the iPod can be downloaded directly from Apple, without having iTunes installed. On a Mac, you can also use Software Update, on a PC, I guess you can just download from Apple's website. Here's a link that has all the updates:
            tic swayback
      • at least Sandisk is trying bring something else to the table..

        i.e. by beating down the price.. and even changing up the human interface a little.. MS comes to the party with a sub par me too product soon to be an outdated relic and expects to compete.. you have to come with something unique and useful for people to switch.

        i like the look of the newer Sansa players but the feel is another thing.. inspite of the hardware looking ok it is pretty clunky to use and feels cheap in your hands at least the ones i was looking at e200(?). the new c200 series (nano "killer") is looking kinda nice.. but still not as nice as a nano.. but i haven't felt it in my hands and used it to see..
        • Agree

          It's in the makeup of this company (Microsoft) to clone whatever is popular in the market, INSTEAD of pushing the boundaries.

          As for as the Sansa, it does feel cheap (plastic Cheap) in your hands.
      • Sandisk doesn't..

        ..look like an iPod Killer - Apple holds 9 out of the 10 top slots
        at Amazon (although props to Sandisk for making it into the top
        10 at all - few others have!)

        But Sandisk does look like a Zune-killer. The Zunes debuted in
        the top 10 sellers, but have fallen out of it dramatically.

        It's OK for a product to start with slow sales. Sometimes it takes
        a while to get traction. It's a bad sign when sales on a pre-
        announced product start to drop precipitously from week 2: it
        means whatever pent-up desire there was, has been spent.

        I hope for Apple's sake they have plenty of inventory for the
        Christmas season - looks like they'll be selling a lot of iPods.

        cheers, Mark
  • Dude... You missed the OBVIOUS...

    You listed the man's better half, but you left out Lance Armstrong. He's got the looks, the charisma AND he's got the crusader type personality. Plus he's a hero. An ICON... This puts him on par with, if not ahead of the game when it comes to a loose cannon like Bono.

    ESPECIALLY if they partner up Zune with his LiveStrong foundation - every purchase of an MS Zune AND every purchase of a Zune Tune (a music track encoded for the Zune, look for MS to trademark that, if they already haven't!) nets a small donation to the LiveStrong Foundation. If that don't get the people motivated, NOTHING will.

    Done right, everybody wins - you get your Zune player, music to fill it, there's money pouring into cancer research, Microsoft profits, and Lance is a still a hero. SLAM DUNK!
    • Nice sentiment but it won't work.

      They are already bribing off the record labels with part of what
      would have been their profit just to let them license the music.

      Now the rest of the profit is going to some charity? (A worthy
      charity btw. that's not the point)

      The Xbox has already been sitting at a loss for some time.
      There is only so many lousy, money-losing products MS can
      afford to give away before even they need to turn a profit.

      Microsoft needs to focus on making great, original products, not
      on gimmicks
  • This article is exemplary of Microsoft's big problem

    They are trying to copy other company's products and services
    with a similiar, but worse equivalent. Now there are
    suggestions that they even copy the marketing gimmicks too?
    How pathetic is that?

    C'mon people, wake up. You think Microsoft will beat Apple
    with a Scarlett Johannsen edition Zune?

    Microsoft needs good, well-designed, original products. Not
    bubbly blondes to distract attention away from the real problem.