New York Times Andrew Ross did a review of the new Microsoft Zune on CNN's morning show (Video here with wrong aspect ratio*) that might as well have written Zune's obituary. Ross attempted to be as fair to the Zune as possible but nothing could save the Zune if it failed the ultimate test of a successful music/video player. Questions like "why is it so clunky" or "why couldn't Microsoft get some decent design people" shows that the Zune is something that fashion conscious people wouldn't be caught dead holding.
The ugly and clashing colors of the Zune might be something that Microsoft can easily change, but the thickness of the Zune is a killer for this class of devices. Microsoft isn't alone in this sin, just about every single iPod competitor on the market make the same mistakes over and over again. When will Apple's competitors get a clue that you cannot beat the iPod unless the device looks like a nice fashion accessory? As wealthy as Microsoft is, you would think they could buy a clue on fashion. As worthless in features as the iPod shuffle is (in my opinion), look at the way that lady anchor on CNN proudly clipped the new shuffle on her suit. That woman knows something that Apple's competitors don't know and they should learn from it.
If you want to sell a device to compete with iPod, get some good fashion designers to tell you if your device is going to clash with people's outfits. Then you fill a room full of people that are fashion conscious like the two CNN anchors that will give you brutally honest answers. Then you build some case mockups and you have the people in the room tell you if your design is going to fly or not. Most importantly you MEASURE the iPod dimensions and repeat the phrase "I will not build a media player that is bigger than the iPod". Keep repeating it until you drill it in to your head that you're wasting your time if you can't build a device that's no thicker than an iPod. It should be obvious by now that people don't care about the fact that iPods have the worst battery life so keep the battery small enough to match the specs of the iPod.
I thought that Microsoft had already learned its lesson with the bulky/clunky XBox which many people didn't want in their living rooms. Microsoft learned its lesson and came out with the XBox 360 which was sleek and sexy. My question to Microsoft is why they couldn't have applied this same lesson to the Zune? Why waste an entire product cycle? A music/video player is even more fashion sensitive than a game console. As for the wireless features, drop it unless you allow content download from the network or Internet. The social networking features are way too awkward to be usable by normal people.
The other criticism that Ross gave was that Zune can't play iTunes. Even though this is Apple's doing and it isn't a "fair" criticism of Microsoft, it's the same medicine Microsoft dishes out to Linux and Mac since Windows applications are normally out of reach. Microsoft might be able to do something about this if they offer a way to import iTunes songs as MP3s, but it's doubtful they would try something so risky. It probably isn't a deal breaker since many people only use their iPods for MP3s. What's really surprising is that the Zune isn't compatible with "plays for sure" which is a slap in the face of its most loyal customers.
Microsoft should take a look at SanDisk. SanDisk is a flash memory company that is hardly synonymous with MP3 players, yet in a short amount of time they have grabbed the second largest market share behind the iPod with barely any media buzz. The SanDisk Sansa is the first effective iPod Nano killer. It has a nicer screen, has FM radio, and Video playback which the iPod Nano lacks and it's cheaper. The tactile feed back on the mechanical dial and solid construction is something I can appreciate. Most importantly, it's a nice looking device that I wouldn't be ashamed to be seen in public with and the colors don't clash like the Zune. While it's still thicker than the iPod Nano, it's thin enough and it isn't as important to match the thickness of the iPod Nano since this class of devices is tiny to begin with. Hard drive based devices are big to begin with and anything that exceeds the thickness of the iPod video player is dead on arrival.
* To CNN's website designers: FIX YOUR ASPECT RATIO! You make your anchors look like they weigh 200+ pounds because you're displaying 4 by 3 aspect video at 16 by 9 wide screen. Sorry for the yelling, aspect ratio hell drives me crazy and you guys just committed the sin in my example C.